No one can accuse writer-director J.C. Chandor of not mixing it up. His debut feature, “Margin Call,” featured a crowded all-star cast as Wall Street types talking, talking, talking in boardrooms and on front stoops as the market crashed around them.
His follow-up, the intense and gripping “All Is Lost,” features almost no dialogue, is set entirely in the middle of the ocean and offers but one actor — Robert Redford, credited simply as “Our Man.”
Since “All Is Lost” begins with Our Man writing one last entry in his captain’s log, an update that both contains the title and begins and ends with “I’m sorry,” we know that this ocean voyage has gone terribly wrong.
Chandor then jumps back eight days to tell the story about how the man met this sorry fate.
As he yachts solo somewhere in the Indian Ocean, a floating container, which apparently fell off a cargo ship, strikes the man’s craft, putting a sizable breach in the hull. The man patches the hole as best as he can, but the water has damaged his radio and his navigation equipment.
With each passing day, the rough seas buffet the vessel until the man is forced to abandon ship and continue his journey on a life raft, using a sextant and the stars in an attempt to navigate the old-fashioned way. As supplies run out and sharks begin to gather, the man is driven to further extremes in the hopes that he might survive.
“All Is Lost” tells this suspenseful tale with virtually no dialogue — the only time Redford opens his mouth is to attempt contact (via radio or otherwise) with a potential rescuer, or to utter a well-deserved four-letter obscenity when everything seems particularly bleak. Beyond those few moments, however, his performance is entirely about action and facial expressions.
This isn’t entirely uncharted territory for the venerable star, having played men of few words in films like “Jeremiah Johnson” and “Downhill Racer.” “All Is Lost” feels of a piece with those earlier movies in its portrayal of a man alone in nature, but the movie’s aesthetic is rigorous and challenging.
One imagines the dreaded studio notes on a movie like this one: “Can’t he have a parrot or a cute puppy that he confides in? What if he explains everything to himself so that the audience can keep up?” Redford’s character offers no verbal cues about anything, so it’s up to viewers to pay attention and figure it out for themselves. We don’t need to hear him say, “Uh-oh — storm’s coming,” when the clouds, the sound of distant thunder and the expression on Redford’s face say it all.
On every technical level, “All Is Lost” is extraordinary; the special effects do their job of making the man seem completely isolated without ever calling attention to themselves, the music (by Alex Ebert) is used sparingly, the sound design and cinematography and editing all combine to do the extra storytelling work that would normally be covered by dialogue.
There are any number of metaphors here for those who wish to look for them, whether they’re about the conflict between man and nature, the lengths to which the desperate will go to stay alive or the clash between the world of commerce and mankind’s inherent links to his surroundings, but Chandor never beats us over the head with any of them.
If you feel like reading into it, there’s plenty to chew on, but if you just want to take this in as an exciting and occasionally terrifying tale of seafaring, it works on that level as well. (If you’re the sort of person who has nightmares about drowning, don’t see this in the theater.)
Redford gives what will no doubt be considered the standout performance of his latter career; there’s no backstory to play, no conflict apart from the immediate circumstances, yet he’s enthralling throughout. And for a man in his late 70s, he tackles the role’s intense physical requirements with gusto; at one point, the ship capsizes, sending Redford rolling up the walls and to the ceiling in what looks like the horror-movie version of Fred Astaire’s famous gravity-defying dance in “Royal Wedding.”
“All Is Lost” was clearly a challenge to produce, and it makes its own demands on its viewers. It’s a worthwhile effort on both counts.