When it comes to man-versus-nature adventures, I’m pretty sure it’s a bad sign if every now and then you find yourself rooting for nature. It’s a sign something’s gone seriously wrong when the man is Robert Redford.
J.C. Chandor’s follow-up to Margin Call (2011) is a bold, experimental take on the tried-and-true lost-at-sea survival saga. On the one hand, it must be acknowledged that making a movie with only one character who has no name, no backstory and virtually no dialogue is admirably radical. On the other, there’s the undeniable fact that All Is Lost drifts into dullness. That’s the thing about bold experiments. They don’t always work.
The legendary actor gives a measured, magnetic performance as a 1 percenter (identified as “Our Man” in the credits) sailing solo across the Indian Ocean — why not? — in his 39-foot yacht. Thank God he’s played by Redford, because, I’ve got to tell you, I’ve always had limited patience with characters who get themselves into completely unnecessary life-and-death jams.
It drives me crazy — whether they’re scaling inhospitable heights, poking their noses into foreign political conflicts or doing any other damn fool thing there’s not a single sensible reason for doing when they could’ve stayed home with friends and shared a good movie or a bottle of wine. Into The Wild. 127 Hours. Shackleton. Scott of the Antarctic. Really? I can’t think of one good reason to go to the South Pole, much less to die trying. Can you?
But I digress. Redford’s character awakes one morning to find that a metal shipping container the size of a boxcar has collided with his craft, ripping a gash in its side just above the water line. In the process, his radio’s been rendered useless. In a related story, the handle to his bilge pump has gone missing, and the boat is taking on water. The first thing we learn about him is that he’s a cool customer. Rather than panic, he sets about checking off tasks on an increasingly urgent to-do list.
He mixes up a batch of fiberglass and patches the hull. He whittles a piece of wood to serve as the pump handle and cranks away. He rigs a system to harvest pitiful sips of drinking water from condensation on a piece of stretched plastic. He’s movie history’s most charismatic Eagle Scout.
For the first half hour or so, this can suck you in. Redford’s a treat to watch on screen again. He’s so good you can practically see him think. After a while, though, it can simply suck. A little. We’ve been here and done this before. A lot. Maybe not in the same minimalist style — but, between Castaway, Life of Pi, The Perfect Storm and The Old Man and the Sea (fun fact: Spencer Tracy was 57 when he made that; Redford’s 77), these are familiar waters.
We know there’ll be a corker of a storm. We know shipping lanes will come into play (will Captain Phillips notice Redford way down there from the bridge of his boat big as a floating city block)? We know sharks will circle. Toward the end, I would’ve bet money a friendly whale would sidle up to Redford’s liferaft and wake him with a refreshing spray.
Chandor’s film has human interest going for it. We don’t want someone — even someone as generic as this sun-seared, salt-crusted cipher — to lose the battle against the elements. What the film lacks is surprise. This shipwreck isn’t a train wreck by any means, but, in the case of the writer-director’s sophomore outing, less really is less. All Is Lost winds up nautical miles from all it might have been.