In "All Is Lost," a harrowing man-at-sea ad ven ture starring Robert Redford, writer-director J.C. Chandor offers a one-man study of revealing character through action, showing not telling. The physical and existential voyage proves why big-screen movies can still matter.
The beating heart at the center of Chandor's daunting exercise is Redford, who plays his nameless adventurer in a virtually wordless performance with the wary determination that a generation came to know and adore throughout the 1970s. His still-handsome face is now weathered and aged and grows more painfully sunburned over the course of his character's week-long ordeal, which begins when the boat he's sailing is rammed by an errant shipping container somewhere in the Indian Ocean.
"All Is Lost" pivots on a random, ultimately terrifying encounter between one person and the mechanistic forces of globalization. But the presence of Redford adds a layer of pathos that surely won't be lost on the filmgoers who came of age with his golden good looks.
Chandor -- who arrived on the scene a few years ago with the assured Wall Street thriller "Margin Call" -- shows similar confidence and skill, as well as newfound ambition, working on a bravura scale. Because there is almost no dialogue, the film consists mostly of Redford's protagonist thinking and solving problems, methodical, unhurried processes that don't immediately lend themselves to on-screen thrills.
But Chandor's attention to detail, and the expressiveness and utter believability with which Redford goes about the anything-but- mundane business of surviving, make "All Is Lost" a technically dazzling, emotionally absorbing, often unexpectedly beautiful experience.
Like "Cast Away" and "Life of Pi" before it, "All Is Lost" joins a fine tradition of stranded-survivor narratives. Chandor takes the form one step further: Redford's character, called Our Man in the film's press notes, doesn't even have a volleyball or Bengal tiger to talk to. This is "Life of I."
Swinging his way through the scuttled boat, hoisting himself up to make repairs, squinting into the sun as he devises shrewd ways to find fresh drinking water, Redford never lets one false or vain moment slip through. He quietly delivers a one-man master class in the art of screen acting, in what is arguably the finest and certainly the bravest performance of his career.
Even at the worst of his Joblike trials, it's impossible not to imagine that Redford will make it: After all, he's Our Man.
Ann Hornaday writes for The Washington Post.
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