Cannes 2013: All Is Lost Initial Reaction

Robert Redford battles the elements

All Is Lost

Put on your best Trailer Man voice. For it's time to forget what you thought you knew about J.C. Chandor. We may have had him pigeonholed, after the excellent Margin Call, as a guy who could handle ensemble casts, wordy scripts and urban settings. But with the excellent All Is Los**t**, which debuted today at the Cannes Film Festival in an out of competition slot, he's forcibly removed himself from that pigeonhole.

Both films, in a way, feature men grappling with forces they can't possibly begin to understand, and both are good, but there the comparison ends. All Is Lost is a stunning achievement, a complete 180-degree shift from Margin Call, tracking a lone sailor (Robert Redford) as his solo pleasure cruise turns into a desperate fight for survival. Apart from an opening voiceover, and an odd line here and there, there are no words. Every part of the battle is etched on Redford's reassuringly craggy face as his sailor (he's never given a name; all we know is that his boat is called the Virginia Jean) fights a hull rupture, uncooperative weather and overwhelming odds.

There's none of the existential musings or flights of fantasy of Life Of Pi here. Apart from a couple of beguiling shots from underneath the waves of sharks circling a raft, this is purely about a struggle for survival. It's closer to Robert Zemeckis' Cast Away, only even more insular. There's no Wilson here for Redford to bond with and bounce off, and precious little levity. From the off, as the sailor is jolted awake by a hull rupture that floods and short circuits his only means of communication, we're pitched headlong into the fray.

Chandor's restless, probing camera roots the whole thing in reality. A couple of slightly dodgy composites aside, the probable result of working with a budget that the guys from Margin Call could run up over a decent lunch, All Is Lost feels like it was shot almost entirely at sea. But it wouldn't work without Redford.

Already, there's been some debate here over whether Redford's performance might be awards-worthy. Our feeling is that it is. This isn't a showy, histrionic performance: only once does Redford's sailor really let the enormity of the situation overwhelm him, and even then his explosion of emotion is relatively contained. He doesn't rage at the heavens, or weep for the family he may be leaving behind. In that sense, no, it's not your typical awards season performance; good luck finding a clip for the Oscars from this one. Instead, this is a buttoned-down turn that's absolutely matter-of-fact. Redford's sailor is a no-nonsense guy, reacting to adversity with absolute stoicism.

More interestingly, though, this is a performance where Redford - now 76, no longer a Sundance Kid - really does seem to be acting his age, or close to it. Yes, the hair is still blond (well, closer to ginger now), with only white sideburns a dead giveaway, but the face is craggier, and he moves with the enforced slowness of a queue for the pension at the post office. This added vulnerability, coupled with that aforementioned stoicism, makes him easy to root for, even as all does indeed seem lost.

All Is Lost is out later in the year