J.C. Chandor’s Oscar-nominated screenplay for "Margin Call" took him 10 years to write. That film was a deliberate, careful study of what it takes for a man to survive on Wall Street, with a large ensemble cast. But while Chandor’s new film, “All Is Lost,” makes use of the same deceptively simple writing and directing style, this time it stars just one person: Robert Redford.
"All Is Lost," which is screening out of competition at Cannes, begins with a few plainspoken words from Redford, whose character is at sea on a small sailboat. From that point on, the film relies only on Redford’s actions; no other dialogue is spoken. Still, we learn much about his character from watching him struggle through a series of tests.
When his boat is hit by a stray shipping container full of shoes, he carefully sets about patching the hole. The first storm comes and nearly sinks his craft, but he and the vessel recover. The second storm nearly destroys them both. Yet each time he is hit with another obstacle, he finds a way to overcome it. At some point it becomes clear that Chandor is drawing the larger comparison to our own lives: Survival is dependent upon not losing hope.
Redford’s character isn't Job, nor is he Pi. This isn’t a film about questioning faith in a higher power; rather, it’s about faith in one’s resourcefulness, faith in one’s self. A film about perseverance, not survival.
There's a line in the David Mamet script for "The Edge," starring Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin, that most men die in the wilderness of shame. "All Is Lost" depicts a character who has many opportunities to die of shame, to simply stop trying to keep himself alive. And yet each time, there is that flicker behind his eyes that says, "Okay, so that didn't work so well. Let's try this."
Sneakily enough, this applies to most of the quiet day-to-day dreams we don't dare realize. We are consumed by the fear of failing before we start, or we are stopped along the way by one catastrophic error that prevents us from trying again. Redford's character somehow has it right: All is not lost until you've really lost everything.
This is Redford's most moving portrayal, capping a long and diverse career as actor, director, producer, Sundance Film Institute creator. He has decades of life experience etched on his face and lighting his eyes — and in "All Is Lost," we have to opportunity to get to know this man up close, to really look at his skin in the light, to appreciate his freckled, wrinkled hands that have touched so much in their day … his frame, one we all know so well, now withering naturally with age but still in formidable shape … his famous hair, here stuck to a forehead caked with blood.
He and Chandor let us in without the screens and filters, without vanity. And though there is no dialogue, no other characters, no love story, it’s impossible not to root for him.
Redford carries the film completely, within and without. By the end, what becomes most moving of all is the actor's — the movie star's — vulnerability. Without his wits, he’d be a frail old man in danger of being swallowed by the sea.
Redford is so good in this movie that if he didn't already have such a long history of films behind him, this would launch his career late in life. Despite his 50-year history as an actor, he has been nominated for Best Actor just once, in 1974 for "The Sting." Here’s hoping he sees a second, in 2014, at the age of 78.
As for Chandor, I don't think I’ve seen such a dramatic departure from a film debut to a follow-up. A film like this is a risk in an era when movie studios won’t release films that aren't aimed at 13-year-olds. (Funnily enough, I think every 13-year-old should see this movie, if, for no other reason than they can learn how to turn salt water into a form that's drinkable.)
When you think of inventive cinema these days, the first thing that comes to mind is the technology. But in an era of rapidly evolving media, there is something purifying about a film that displays simple craft: acting, writing and directing. There are no quick fixes here about what it means to live, or what it means to die. To last the duration, you are merely required to hold on.
Hold on as long as you can, until all – every last thing – is lost.