Absurd, really, the fragility of existence. One day you are tranquilly sailing the Indian Ocean, and the next, your beautiful old sailboat is taking on water and you’ve lost all power of navigation and radio contact. That, and very little else, is the plot of All Is Lost, in which a nameless man (Robert Redford) fights for his life in undramatic but quietly compelling ways. After his boat collides with a metal shipping container that rips a hole in the hull, the man patches the hole and bales out the bilge water. He rinses waterlogged electronics with his drinking water. He learns how to use a sextant. He prevents himself, as best he can, from falling into despair.
Written and directed by J.C. Chandor (Margin Call), All Is Lost does not fit neatly into any category. It is not an adventure tale, though maybe the man, who is heading into old age, had hoped it would be. It is not a forces-of-nature story, though sharks circle beneath and a typhoon is not far off. And it’s not quite a character study, except for a letter the man writes to his family that reveals a conscientious, though perhaps distant, person who wants his loved ones to know that he tried. There is only a single word of dialogue. What is interesting are the details, the workmanlike, occasionally inspired efforts the man makes to survive and get rescued, and the very slight yet unpredictable shifts in nuance from the director, such as how the view sometimes becomes a white-out from the flailing sails, or the irony of the cargo that spills from the container: sneakers, which drift away in a colorful flotilla of uselessness. Despite weathering a severe storm, the ship’s eventual sinking is not spectacular, and the man has time to shave before relocating to the emergency raft. What seems most threatening is ocean’s vast emptiness.
And so the man undertakes one task after another, becoming more resourceful as the days pass. Redford, who has rather nobly aged into his prematurely weatherbeaten face, expresses the man’s every calibration with remarkably eloquent body language. It’s easy to see why the director would need an actor of considerable charisma to hold the screen solo with so little else going on, yet that Redford would prove to be utterly engrossing in such a minimal role might be a surprise to even his most ardent fans. And is it they (along with sailing enthusiasts) who will most appreciate this meticulously crafted meditation. All Is Lost is not a great film, but it is a singular canvas for a great performance.