All Is Lost
Produced by Before The Door Picture
Written and Directed by J.C. Chandor 
Distributed by Lionsgate 

Robert Redford and Bruce Dern are proving that we needn’t retire to our rocking chairs at 77—not if we have star power, that is.  Each costar of 1974’s The Great Gatsby has his own leading role in 2013: Dern in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, and Redford in J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost.

I have not yet seen Nebraska, so reviewing Dern’s performance will have to wait.  For the time being, I’ll make do with commenting on the Sundance Kid’s small-scale disaster outing.

Last year Redford directed and took the lead in the dreadfully self-important The Company You Keep, a movie that strove mightily to make audiences believe the murderous tykes who made up the Weather Underground in the 1970’s were well-meaning idealists.  They just happened to shoot and bomb people now and then, but only because they felt insulted that sufficient heed was not being paid to their wisdom regarding the burning issues of the day.  They didn’t really mean to kill anyone; they just wanted to awaken folks to the injustice in their midst.  Only Redford, with his still-tousled blond locks and his all-American if wrinkled face, could get away with such drivel.  Even at that, the movie did wretchedly at the box office.

This year Redford graciously elected to appear in a far better film, with a premise that couldn’t be simpler nor more preposterous.  All Is Lost begins with printed words on a gray screen.  They tell us that we’re looking at an ocean gently swelling with pre-dawn waves “1700 miles from the Straits of Sumatra.”  Not as precise as a GPS reading, to be sure, but the wide­screen void gives us the first intimation that someone may be in trouble.  We then hear Redford off-screen intoning the apologetic words of a letter he’s been writing.  To whom is he writing?  Wife, children, coworkers?  And why is he sorry?  We never learn.  Also withheld is any clue as to what could have possessed this fellow to take his 39-foot sailboat out alone into the middle of the Indian Ocean.  True, he’s a fairly skilled sailor, but we’re left to wonder why he’d embark on such a boneheaded venture.  Isn’t he breaking one or more of the cardinal rules of recreational boating?

But we’re expected to put such questions aside so we can appreciate the higher truths of this one-person narrative.  “Our Man,” as the credits describe him, simply shows up before us, and we’ll have to be satisfied with that.  OK: I was game.  This clearly is Chandor’s stab at an Everyman story, and he’s perfectly entitled to take it.  The wonder is that Chandor’s stab finds its mark as well as it does.

Of course, men on the high seas in flimsy boats has been a literary commonplace at least since Noah.  More recently, we’ve had mad Ahab navigating the Pequod in search of Melville’s cetacean demon, Stephen Crane’s “Open Boat” no larger than a bathtub, and Alfred Hitchcock’s politically cramped Lifeboat.  All these vessels were expressly designed to test the mettle of their occupants.  If kings and presidents navigate the ship of state, then lone citizens ride the waves, clinging to their helms with one hand and studying their compasses with the other, as existential woes try to drown them.

In All Is Lost, Redford’s grizzled geezer is beset by one mishap after another.  The first comes in the form of a nearly boxcar-sized metal container filled with brightly colored running shoes that has somehow broken free from a merchant vessel.  The container rams his hull, causing his craft to flood in minutes as he futilely tries to stem the flow.  The water doesn’t merely fill his cabin space; it destroys his radio and computer, leaving him unable to contact help.  For the rest of the film, we watch as he goes about trying to save himself.

Once you accept this unlikely premise, subsequent events seem reasonable enough.  Our Man addresses his predicament with intelligence and resolve and a good deal of courage.  Nevertheless, a simple course in how to rescue yourself when alone out on the high seas doesn’t make for much drama, so Chandor whips up a tropical storm.  In no time at all, things become quite interesting.  Our Man’s craft is knocked on its side.  A particularly powerful wave smashes the boat so that Our Man slams his head into the mast below deck, which renders him unconscious.  When he comes to, he finds himself in the cabin, chest-high in water.  From this moment, things become increasingly fraught.

Even with the storm and its aftermath, however, the film wears out its welcome about 40 minutes into its 106-minute duration.  There are only so many times we can watch Our Man open yet another tin of beans and sift sun-cooked seawater to render it potable.  While these scenes are shot with impressive attention to detail, and Redford, looking remarkably fit, performs most of his stunts himself, my attention nevertheless strayed to other subjects as I watched, not all of them related to the film’s narrative.  I wondered, for instance, if the film could have been made had another actor taken the part—say, Kevin Costner or Kevin Bacon.  Not likely, I concluded.  With his Sundance credentials and lingering Sundance Kid looks, Redford clearly made the project bankable, as they say in Hollywood.  And then there are his conventionally liberal politics, a real asset among film critics, as the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes attest.  I can’t think of another septuagenarian actor on whom financial backers would have risked their money for such a project.  It’s odd how far stoic good looks and meager acting talent have taken Redford.  He’s spent 50 years making an art of giving nothing away.  It seems film audiences can’t get enough of his famous reserve.  I suppose there are many who are waiting for the film in which he will finally crack his emotional shell.  Well, he’s not the first to use this ploy.  George Raft, Fred MacMurray, and Clint Eastwood all got considerable mileage out of it.

Still, the film is an admirable effort, deserving points for verisimilitude and for eliciting from Redford something like a genuine if overly stolid performance.  Even in the face of imminent death, he remains taciturn.  Other than the words of the letter he speaks at the outset, he utters only one word.  In a rage at his impossible situation, he bellows the expletive for intercourse that in our time both men and women freely invoke to register anything other than sexual congress.

With this project, Chandor proves himself an able if foolhardy director.  I’m not sure what motivated him to write and direct this film.  I’d guess it was the same impulse that was behind his first film, Margin Call (2010), an extraordinarily convincing dramatization of what happened to the investment banks who so foolishly threw their collective weight into selling mortgage-backed securities, only to have the market blow up in their faces in 2008.  (Oh, wait—they weren’t so foolish after all.  Unlike Our Man, these hotshots got We Guys to bail them out.)

Chandor is an Indian-American whose father labored for 40 years at Merrill Lynch.  He’s obviously learned a good deal from the old man.  Other than Charles Ferguson’s excellent documentary (Inside Job), Chandor’s Margin Call is the only film that tells this story honestly and convincingly.  Evidently, he’s a man who’s found his inspiration in the spectacle of hubris and its consequences, whether in a corner office or in an oceangoing sloop.  I look forward to his next movie.