Nobody wants Robert Redford to drown, but to really care about "All Is Lost," the fear of Redford drowning must practically be an ongoing issue in your life. It can't just be something you develop over the course of the movie. No, you really need to have been worrying about this for years.
Still, in every other way except as a drama, "All Is Lost" is successful, even interesting. It's a refreshing experiment, an attempt at something novel, a solo turn for a great star and an opportunity to spend time on a boat with Bob. Let's just say it, if someone wants to give Redford an Oscar for this, why not? This is a perfectly good excuse. After all, in the scenery-chewing decade of the 1970s, he was the best actor we had, but he seemed so low-key and natural that people barely noticed at the time.
Redford has always been a cool customer, and so a boating-disaster movie with him at the center is going to be a little calmer than most. In the film's first minutes, he wakes up to find that his small yacht has crashed into a storage container, and that a hole, about 2 feet in diameter, has been ripped out of the hull. The boat is flooding, but instead of doing what anyone else might do - such as scream, panic and run around frantically - Redford carefully takes in the prospect of disaster, as if thinking, "Hmm, look at that. I have my work cut out for me."
For the rest of the movie, we see a man trying his best to stay afloat. We know next to nothing about him, except what we can infer from what we see. He has a yacht, albeit a little one, and lots of leisure time. He is clearly American, and yet he is in the middle of the Indian Ocean, which means that he is probably circumnavigating the globe. He is a man of some years, probably around 70, and yet he has perfectly white teeth and reddish-brown hair that can only come through a hairdresser's intervention.
All these clues tell us that this man has lots of money, that he is very sure of himself, that he is used to being the boss, that he is something of a lone wolf, and that he is exceptionally smart and prepared. His mild demeanor and pleasing good looks belie an iron spine. Clearly, we are looking at either a highly successful self-made businessman or a former matinee idol turned director turned founder of a major American film festival.
Redford's age is integral to the film's effectiveness. He is 77, probably 76 at the time of filming, and, though he is by no means your grandfather's 76, he can't be mistaken for a young man. And so all the physical things he must do - drag himself through water, climb, pull things up, lift himself out - are an effort. What a 30-year-old might do spontaneously, he must think about, and position himself properly, and consciously apply his strength with precision and no wasted effort. Thus, we feel his strain, and our involvement becomes much more intense than if we were watching, say, Channing Tatum.
But this involvement ebbs and flows. The pure dose of Redford is welcome. With him we get nothing flashy, just an unbroken succession of thought, not to mention that other thing that he always brings to the screen, a hard-to-define quality of integrity mixed with suppressed prickliness and impatience, the sense of a complete person. Yet even Redford bailing water for 106 minutes can be a bit much.
Still, there's a lot here to see: On the ocean, you can spot a storm coming from many miles away. The weather can be beautiful where you're sitting, but those black clouds in the distance spell trouble. Perhaps everyone knows this, but there's a difference between knowing it and seeing it. Director J.C. Chandor also gives us many arresting shots of sea creatures swimming beneath the man's vessel, perfectly at peace. They belong here, he doesn't.
"All Is Lost" is a film that few will actively enjoy, but that probably no one will regret having seen.