Film Review: All Is Lost

Lone sailor struggles with sinking yacht in a minimalist vehicle for Robert Redford.

A survival tale set on the Indian Ocean, All Is Lost is a stripped-down production that gives actor Robert Redford his most memorable role in years. At times resembling a how-to manual, the movie provides almost no background or context to its plot, which is simply man (and his boat) against nature. Redford works hard, and deserves the accolades he will receive, but All Is Lost is the sort of endurance test most viewers will wait to watch on TV.

Billed simply as "Our Man," Redford delivers a short voiceover as the movie opens and then remains mute for the bulk of the story. Virtually the only other dialogue comes from a broken radio that emits more static than words, making this the equivalent of a modern-day silent.

Most of the action takes place aboard the Virginia Jean, a modest but comfortable yacht plying the waters 1,700 nautical miles from Sumatra. A random cargo container rams into the boat, destroying its navigation and communication equipment and leaving a gaping hole in the hull just above waterline.

As the lone sailor makes repairs, a storm strikes, further crippling the yacht. With limited means at his disposal—including an inflatable life raft and a canvas bag helpfully labeled "Survival Equipment"—Our Man must make snap judgments that directly impact his chances of rescue.

Writer and director J.C. Chandor, whose debut feature was 2011's Margin Call, takes an admirably single-minded approach to the story. The camera rarely leaves Redford, or his point-of-view, except to emphasize his isolation. The movie's focus on physical labor, on just how difficult it is to climb a mast or retrieve a sea anchor, evokes, a bit self-consciously, Hemingway, in particular The Old Man and the Sea.

Chandor's determination comes at a cost. All Is Lost has moments of beauty, but the movie as a whole feels detached, almost clinical. The only real question is whether or not Redford's character will survive. Finding solutions to various yachting problems is interesting up to a point—for me about halfway through, when I began to long for Cast Away and even Jeremiah Johnson. When the sharks begin to circle, and Alex Ebert's score slips into Jaws-inspired riffs, you may be reminded of Chekhov's rifle.

Or you may find yourself looking for clues. Is the fact the cargo container held sneakers a comment on the world economy? When Redford says, "I tried to be strong...I will miss you, I am sorry," is he bidding farewell to his audience? What is the ultimate point of survival tales, especially made-up ones? Would you rather spend time in outer space with Gravity's Sandra Bullock, or becalmed on the ocean with Redford?