When a sailor (Redford) on a solo cruise finds that the hull of his boat has been pierced, a struggle with the elements - and to stay alive - begins.
All the best to the poor schmoe who’ll have to trawl through All Is Lost looking for a clip to show if — or, more likely, when — Robert Redford is nominated for Best Actor at next year’s Academy Awards. Oscar clips are, by their very nature, showy, the actor’s equivalent of a compilation of mad footballing skillz on YouTube; they are the epitome of gimme gimme gimme, a CliffsNotes of a performance that should include everything that the Academy usually looks for when handing out its golden gongs. They will usually involve crying, or screaming, or scream-crying, or some kind of ungodly histrionics.
There is nothing like this in Redford’s performance in All Is Lost. Well, there’s a brief moment about two-thirds in when, after help has passed by his unnamed sailor, he has a mini-freak-out. But his voice, ravaged by the sun and lack of water, has gone. There are no cries of “Why me?”, “No, God, no!” or “Khaaaaaaaan!” Instead, Redford’s sailor takes every setback — and there are many, many setbacks in J. C. Chandor’s incredible film; so many that we feel compelled to ask exactly what Redford’s character has done to piss God off — with remarkable, low-key stoicism, trying to plan a way out. And, unlike its far flashier close cousin Gravity (another tale of survival in the harshest environment possible), where Sandra Bullock spends most of the movie talking to herself, Redford does it almost entirely in silence.
Before Chandor’s film screened in Cannes earlier this year, rumour had it that his follow-up to the excessively talky, and excellent, financial drama, Margin Call, had gone entirely in the opposite direction, and was a silent film. It’s not, of course — sound plays a huge part in All Is Lost, letting us know when a squall is about to rage, or when a boat has had a potentially fatal collision with a large cargo container, floating in the middle of the ocean for no discernible reason. But Chandor has deliberately stripped away dialogue, and Redford’s voice. There are about eight lines of dialogue in the whole thing — most of those come at the beginning in a doom-laden voice-over from Redford, seemingly about to give up on the whole shebang, apologising to a family he doesn’t name for reasons he doesn’t divulge. Later, he makes an SOS call. And later still, he rasps the word “help”. That’s it.
Otherwise, Chandor has crafted as pure an action film as can be. Nothing blows up here, save an inflatable dinghy; but everything that Redford does is action, whether it’s something as low-key as trying to repair the hole in his boat’s hull by improvising a patch or deciding what food to salvage, or something as dramatic as being flung into
the roiling ocean in the middle of a storm straight out of Shakespeare. And that this action grips us, despite the absence of dialogue or backstory, is testament to Chandor’s assured, bare-bones direction, and Redford’s performance. Everything we need to know about his sailor is in front of us — he’s an older gentleman who’s cruising around the world in his own yacht, so he’s clearly successful, but a loner; he’s determined, resourceful, and ineffably calm in a crisis. This simple knowledge — along with Chandor’s canny casting of an icon, with so much goodwill in his baggage already — welds us to the sailor’s struggle, compelling us to will him along and prove the opening voice-over, and the film’s very title, a fallacy.
Redford has never been better, conveying everything with looks, gestures, body language. At no point do we catch him acting; instead, he’s simply being. Of course, the poor Oscar clips guy might not agree.
A triumph of pure cinema and wonderful visual storytelling from Chandor, who must now be considered the real deal, while Redford is sublime in what could well be the performance of his career.