“No man will be a sailor who has a contrivance enough to get himself into a jail,” said Samuel Johnson. “For being in a ship is being in a jail, with a chance of being drowned.” The proof, should you need it, comes in “All Is Lost,” a movie unique in my experience.
It begins with a lone, nameless sailor awakening to find that a stray shipping container has punched a hole in his 39-foot yacht. For the next hour and three-quarters, he pilots his crippled craft as shrewdly as he can, dealing with sharks and swells, starvation and storms.
We learn nothing about his past or his reasons for being in the middle of the Indian Ocean. A vague voice-over at the beginning seems to be the contents of a letter, possibly dictated to family or friends and expressing regrets for failing them in an undefined way.
Writer-director J.C. Chandor devotes every minute of the film, which contains hardly any dialogue, to the troubles at hand. We see how a sailor ties knots, repairs holes while underway, uses a sea anchor, gathers fresh water from condensation, navigates by the stars. The movie is completely free of concepts – the sailor never soliloquizes – yet crammed with details about day-to-day life at sea.
The presence of Robert Redford gives the character weight, if not depth, because we bring to the film everything we know about the actor from other movies. Redford’s characters have seemed unflappable for more than 40 years: sometimes cool, sometimes cocky, but almost always master of a situation. To see him beginning to flounder is to see a new Redford, one who catches us off guard.
Because the character doesn’t change, Redford doesn’t either. His performance has few colors: He remains weary and wary, gradually becoming more worn and frustrated, but we never learn anything about his inner life. (He curses just once, in the best use of movie profanity since Rhett Butler said he didn’t give a damn.)
Frank DeMarco, who shot Chandor’s other feature (“Margin Call”), photographs above the water line; Peter Zuccarini, who has specialized in underwater photography for 25 years, contributes shots below the surface. They prove that, though a picture may not really be worth a thousand words, striking images can hold our attention when no words are forthcoming.
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