The old(ish) man and the sea

Robert Redford's solo performance anchors this courageous film about survival

JC Chandor's All Is Lost is a taut maritime drama about a man who struggles to survive in the Indian Ocean after his yacht is holed and slowly starts to sink. The entire film has only one character, an unnamed man played by Robert Redford, and we're stuck with him on his vessel and later on a life raft, watching him calmly struggling against the waves, the storm, the disorientation, the hopelessness. We don't know who this man is (he's merely described as "Our Man" in the credits) or why he's there, and the film doesn't have any flashback or any cutaway to, say, his family anxiously waiting for news of him. There are no other external perspectives. We're stranded with him. We are, literally, in the same boat with him and we see everything as he sees it; it's almost an hour into the movie before there's a long shot from above showing him surrounded by a vast body of water. Our Man, his radio inoperative after the yacht gets flooded, speaks only twice during this 105-minute film. The third time he opens his mouth is the only time the film allows him a howl of despair.

Stripping things down to the elemental, the minimal objective, All Is Lost is that rare species, a brave film that shows immense trust in itself and in us — an audience schooled in shipwreck melodramas and documentaries about real-life rescue operations. Watching Our Man solving one problem after another – patching a severe breach in the hull, bailing out the vessel, bracing himself for a thunderstorm, re-learning how to use a compass and map — we're not manipulated by the engine of the script (of course there's a script) into viewing him as a hero. We realise there's no heroism involved when all that's at stake is the survival of one individual.

In Gravity, Sandra Bullock floats around in cosmic solitude following a wrecked spaceship, but in that film the elements of thrill are meant to be thrilling, plus the view is fantastic. Then of course we're bound to mention Life of Pi, with that poor boy stranded on a lifeboat with a tiger, and perhaps 127 Hours, with James Franco playing a man trapped between huge boulders (with a lot of flashbacks to happier hours). While those titles are admirable in their own ways, All Is Lost has precise objectivism and, for the most part, a mature, humble firmness that's almost touching. Its absence of psychological analysis compels us to focus on Our Man's next action and nothing else: He acts therefore he is. This isn't The Old Man and the Sea; this is more like A Man Escaped, a 1956 French film by Robert Bresson, which takes place almost entirely in a prison cell as a convicted man objectively, patiently, resolutely tries to free himself.

That said, All Is Lost isn't as austere, or as "unentertaining", as that extremely pared down cinematic work by Bresson was in its quest to define existence only by a person's action. It's still a Hollywood movie we're watching here, and the second part of All Is Lost is eventful (storms, dehydration, even sharks), with slightly too much music in some scenes, and yet with the interplay between hope and hopelessness, between day and night, between light and darkness, elegantly mapped out.

In short, it's a drama, and it is engaging despite the rigour of the set-up. Much of that comes from Redford's presence, as Our Man gradually stores up the weight of anxiety in his weathered face, but still maintains confident physical movements in the midst of a seeming catastrophe. Redford, 76, has definite charisma, but what keeps the film tense is the fact that Our Man is also a great mystery — a blank slate at first, but soon a personality sculpted out of his activity, motion and the serene will to survive.

The success of All Is Lost is to be a physical film that ends up with emotional reverberation, right down to the last shot that engulfs us and Our Man in the depths of the ocean, with only a faint light shining from above.

Do you like the content of this article?