In his debut film Margin Call, writer-director J.C. Chandor rounded up a huge cast, cloistered them in offices and never let them stop talking. In his second film, Chandor does something radically different and braver. There’s practically no dialogue in All Is Lost, the entire movie is set on the open sea and there is only one person on the screen, Robert Redford, playing a character whose name we never learn.
He is obviously a man of wealth, since he’s sailing on a large yacht on an apparent vacation in the Indian Ocean. There are indications that a family awaits wherever he calls home. He is clearly educated, well-bred. One morning, a shipping container rams into his boat, flooding the cabin and short-circuiting the controls.
That’s the first of a series of calamities that will befall our protagonist. The weather has turned against him; so has his expensive safety equipment. Makeshift repairs don’t hold. Sharks take note of his presence. Only the stars in the night sky cooperate, helping him steer his sinking vessel toward more populated waters. But they shine down on him impassively, indifferent to his fate. Only we, the audience, bear witness to his dilemma.
And after a while, we grow bored. The metaphors and allegories in All Is Lost are writ in flashing neon letters — for centuries, artists have used the sea as a setting for tales of survival — and there is the undeniable presence of Redford, who doesn’t act much in movies these days but brings the kind of screen presence and film legacy that barely exists in Hollywood anymore.
Redford did most of his own stunts in All Is Lost, and he’s able to convey myriad emotions and thoughts with only a smattering of words — this is a physical performance of the highest order and destined to attract loads of year-end awards. Chandor displays a command of his craft that Margin Call only hinted at, using sound and silence and light and dark in ways that convey a great, burgeoning talent.
But the movie remains a vague curiosity. Unlike Gravity, which took a similar scenario and infused it with spectacle, All Is Lost starts feeling repetitive, then dull. No matter how many specific details the picture provides (such as how to make sea water drinkable), you’re never fully invested in this man’s plight. You study him, but you don’t care for him. He’s a symbol, not a person — an embodiment of the human instinct to survive — and while the movie is intriguing on an intellectual level, Chandor never overcomes the artifice of his admittedly daring creation. All Is Lost is more fun to think about than it is to actually watch: It’s a testament to a great actor, an experimental piece of cinema and a bit of a bore.
Cast: Robert Redford.
Writer-director: J.C. Chandor.
Producers: Neal Dodson, Anna Gerb, Justin Nappi.
A Roadside Attractions release. Running time: 106 minutes. Vulgar language. Opens Friday Nov. 8 in Miami-Dade: Aventura, Paragon Grove, South Beach; in Broward: Gateway; in Palm Beach: Living Room, Palace, Shadowood.