As close to pure existential cinema as American filmmaking is likely to get these days, “All Is Lost” finds writer-director J.C. Chandor decisively avoiding the sophomore slump with a picture that could scarcely be more different from his 2011 debut, “Margin Call.” An impressively spare, nearly dialogue-free stranded-at-sea drama that strips characterization down to basic survival instinct, this emotionally resonant one-man showcase for Robert Redford faces a fair number of marketing challenges, given its audacious minimalism and proximity to a much splashier castaway adventure, “Life of Pi.” Still, critical support and high-concept talking points could help “Lost” find its legs as an upscale specialty release, due out Oct. 25 through Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions.
Chandor struck upon the idea of filming an open-water thriller long before he made “Margin Call,” which earned an Oscar nomination for its verbally dexterous, multi-character screenplay. With “All Is Lost,” the writer-director seems to have gone in as radically different a direction as possible, placing a solitary figure at the center of a roughly 30-page script that, aside from a quietly mournful opening monologue, contains three or four lines of dialogue at most. With no background or exposition, viewer identification is thus reduced to the simplest, most primal level of wondering whether Redford’s character will survive, and it’s a measure of how carefully the film avoids the usual dramatic expedients and manipulations that the answer to that question is never entirely obvious.
Although we never learn the mariner’s name (he’s identified simply as “Our Man” in the credits), we do learn the name of his boat, a 39-foot yacht called the Virginia Jean. For reasons that go unexplained, he’s been on a solo voyage in the Indian Ocean for quite some time, and it’s a measure of his sailing experience that he reacts with more irritation than panic when he awakens one morning to find that a random shipping container has collided with his boat, ripping a gash in its hull.
The dread and anxiety are slow to build. Although he manages to temporarily repair the hull, the boat’s navigational functions have been completely shut down, leaving the Virginia Jean to sail helplessly into the path of a gathering storm. Our Man barely manages to keep himself afloat as he and the boat are repeatedly tossed and turned by the waves, lashed by pounding wind and rain. Yet such is the character’s resourcefulness — stockpiling rations, emptying the hold of water, and at one point climbing the 65-foot mast to secure the sails — that he manages to hold out as long as possible before the irreparable craft finally capsizes, at about the one-hour mark, leaving him to spend the rest of this harrowing journey in a life raft.
From there, the picture morphs from a unhurried, steadily involving portrait of emergency damage control into an intensely engrossing high-stakes scenario, something it achieves without introducing far-fetched obstacles or having Our Man suddenly start conversing with a volleyball. Apart from the momentary threat of attack when the raft enters shark-infested waters, the film finds drama in the little details: the ingenious method of obtaining fresh water that the protagonist discovers, or the sunburn that creeps ever more visibly across his face as the days progress. Perhaps the only artificial elements here are the prominent score by Alex Ebert, which nonetheless crucially serves the material with its enveloping, never overpowering swells of emotion, and a final scene that verges on overcalculation, although Chandor finds the perfect gesture with which to bring his story to a deeply moving close.
“All Is Lost,” then, is that mainstream-movie rarity: a virtually wordless film that speaks with grave eloquence and simplicity about the human condition. Nothing here feels fancy or extraneous, least of all Redford’s superb performance, in which the clearly invigorated actor (having a bit of a comeback year with this and “The Company You Keep”) holds the viewer’s attention merely by wincing, scowling, troubleshooting and yelling the occasional expletive. That we have no access to this man’s history or inner life merely heightens the poignance of his situation, detailed knowledge being no prerequisite for basic empathy under such extreme circumstances.
“Margin Call” showed impressive formal control on Chandor’s part, and despite the looseness and immediacy of the handheld camerawork here, his direction feels polished and assured in every respect. Cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco skillfully maneuvers the camera around Redford within close quarters, while underwater d.p. Peter Zuccarini (who also worked on “Life of Pi”) finds a captivating beauty in the image of the raft, its thin rubber layers looking especially vulnerable from the depths below. Pete Beaudreau’s editing maintains a fleet rhythm over the 105-minute running time.
Although the shoot made use of a number of water tanks, filming was largely done on the open seas, mainly the Pacific (near Los Angeles and Ensenada, Mexico) and the Caribbean, with subtly integrated visual f/x work to enhance skies, backgrounds and waves. End credits pay touching tribute to the three 1978 Cal 39 sailboats that “generously gave themselves up for art.”