All Is Lost -- Few filmmakers have the luxury of enlisting the services of a famous Hollywood movie star to make an experimental movie. Of course, not all Hollywood movie stars are like Robert Redford.
As the founder of the immensely influential Sundance Film Festival, Redford has always had one foot in the Hollywood tradition while remaining committed to a more independent filmmaking mindset as well. So his pairing with director J.C. Chandor, the filmmaker responsible for 2011’s excellent low-budget film "Margin Call," for an essentially dialogue-free, existential drama isn’t quite Redford as outrageous as it initially sounds.
At 77 years of age, Redford’s participation in "All is Lost" becomes even more admirable. His position as a world famous movie star, Sundance Film Festival creator and Hollywood film director could easily allow him to rest on his laurels and flirt with the idea of retiring from appearing in front of the camera altogether. It certainly doesn’t make the notion of appearing as the sole cast member in a film that involves battling the menacing power of Mother Nature adrift in a sailboat in the middle of the Indian Ocean sound any more appealing.
However Redford has done just that, even insisting on performing all of his own stunts in a movie where the elements frequently threaten to relieve his character of his own existence. The reward for his decision is that the veteran actor has delivered one of the best performances of his career.
The story itself is an exercise in simplicity. An unnamed man (listed as "Our Man" in the credits) is awakened to find his sailboat has grounded on a drifting cargo container in the vast Indian Ocean, and the damage to his vessel soon becomes a threat to his very survival.
While the film’s plot can be easily summarized in this single sentence, it is the story’s execution that makes "All is Lost" such a gripping and tense experience. Our Man’s situation may seem deceptively slight at first as he resourcefully finds the means to temporarily fix the damage to his boat’s hull. However, the failure of his communication and navigation equipment to work, as well as the appearance of approaching bad weather and stormy seas, soon makes the gravity of his situation dramatically clear.
From here Chandor’s tight screenplay effectively draws you into our protagonist’s predicament, creating an emotionally engrossing experience. Exploiting Our Man’s severe isolation on the ocean, Chandor methodically introduces new elements to slowly escalate the tension here as new difficulties arise.
Meanwhile the straightforward nature of the screenplay works to present as realistic as assessment of this dramatic scenario as possible as well, forcing Redford’s character to constantly rely on his wits and the materials at hand to ensure his survival.
It leaves Redford to rely merely on facial expressions and physical gestures to convey his character’s emotional state, as well as the increasingly serious nature of his situation. The result allows us the audience to participate in Redford’s thought process ourselves, making Our Man’s predicament that much more believable and affecting.
While Redford has frequently been criticized for always opting to play the hero rather than the heavy in any particular film, "All Is Lost" allows the actor to debunk this criticism, serving as both hero and villain here. The existential nature of the story forces his character to accept his own flaws and limitations as a human being and deal with the consequences of his decisions that may ultimately lead to his destruction.
Complimenting this strategy, Redford admirably refuses to ingratiate his character to the audience, opting to instead portray him with an emotional authenticity that makes his character’s situation that much more compelling. His Our Man may be the only character in the film, however he’s no conventional movie hero, merely a flawed individual desperately fighting for his very life.
Interestingly, "All Is Lost" draws parallels to another recent film release, the science fiction thriller "Gravity." Both films reveal their main character to be stranded in a hostile environment -- Sandra Bullock’s in the grim environment of outer space and Redford’s on the open sea. Bullock and Redford also must have endured grueling shoots to achieve their goal, and both actors are forced to rely on unconventional means to express themselves, delivering career-defining performances. While the two films may seem light years away in content -- one a big budget action movie, the other a low budget independent film -- the results for both are worthy of one of the best films of the year.
"All is Lost" is playing at the Colonial Theater in Keene for one week only starting Dec. 13. Call 603-352-2033 or visit www.thecolonial.org for details.
Nathan Hurlbut is a free-lance filmmaker and a regular columnist for the Arts & Entertainment section.