Abstract for both better and worse, All Is Lost finds Robert Redford stranded at sea, left to fend for himself in a primal battle of man versus nature. Something of a conceptual cross between Cast Away and Redford’s own Jeremiah Johnson from 1972, J.C. Chandor’s minimalist thriller opens with the actor narrating a farewell letter to unidentified loved ones—and then, flashing back eight days earlier, goes virtually silent for the remainder of its 107-minute runtime, save for a brief S.O.S. call and a bellowed “Fuck!” That consuming quietude makes the oceanic odyssey of Redford’s unnamed sailor function in a contextual and emotional vacuum, leaving the story to focus almost wholly on the details of his survivalist techniques.
As it documents his efforts to first fix a punctured hull and empty his flooded cabin, and then to endure a storm that repeatedly flips his craft, the film mirrors its protagonist’s process-oriented toil. Chandor depicts his ordeal with an intense cinematographic proximity that only rarely allows aesthetic showmanship to intrude upon its nitty-gritty action, as in a POV shot of Redford pulling himself up the ship’s mast via a pulley-driven chair, or his late tumbling ride in an inflatable life raft.
If, formally speaking, All Is Lost assumes its character’s methodical demeanor, its intermittent use of obvious and subpar CGI undermines its sought-after realism. More problematic is that without any background on Redford’s situation, or on the character himself, the film remains visually up-close-and-personal with its lone subject while consistently operating at a detached remove that frustrates genuine rooting interest in his survival. Nonetheless, by dropping viewers directly into the proceedings and refusing to imbue the material with allegorical socioeconomic concerns, Chandor creates an austere snapshot of human struggle, ingenuity, and perseverance, one that’s predicated on Redford’s fantastic performance.
Though his dogged silence increasingly comes to seem like a contrived device, Redford is ideally cast, with his larger-than-life stature and masculine persona lending immense heft to his turn as an individual forced to overcome perilous odds through calm and rational behavior. When it removes itself from his side, as with some unnecessary underwater shots of roaming fish intended to portend looming danger, the film temporarily loses its bearings. But in its leading man’s lined, determined visage, All Is Lost locates not only its suspense, but also its strength.