If I'd have known the 30-second voiceover that opens "All is Lost" would represent 95 percent of the film's dialogue, I would have paid much closer attention to its content.
This is a film destined to illicit comparisons to Tom Hanks' solo acting effort in "Castaway," but Robert Redford does his colleague one better by leaving the volleyball at home.
As the opening shot pans across a shadowy silhouette floating in the ocean, Redford's voice reads a desperate message to a family member, making broad apologies for non-specific sins. Next we flash back eight days to the moment Redford (known only as "Our Man" on the film's imdb.com page) wakes on board a sailboat that is impaled on a discarded cargo carrier and taking on water. He immediately begins the process of separating himself from the floating obstacle and patching his boat, and the camera takes us along with every meticulous step.
Small details only offer quick hints of the situation. We don't know who Our Man is and we don't know why he is there, but as he looks over his maps we determine that he is somewhere in the Indian Ocean, and his calm, methodical behavior suggests an impressive depth of nautical experience. The plot is deliberately simple: Will Out Man get to safety in spite of his crippled ship? The opening shot offers little hope.
With so little information to go on, the viewer is given two options for connecting with the film. The first is to project yourself into Redford's water-logged shoes, and ask how you would react to the steady sequence of setbacks that he faces with silent determination: a hole in the hull, a nasty storm, a broken radio — and that's just for starters. Watching his character experience disappointment after disappointment, even after he responds to each with some calm degree of preparation or experience long after you or I would have given up hope, feels like watching a man strain against a python as it gradually constricts the life out of him.
The second option is to think about Redford himself. We've spent a lot of time with Robert Redford over the years, but never like this. At times you feel less like you are watching a performance and more like you are just watching the actor on his day off. As a child I was introduced to Redford The Movie Star via roles in "The Natural" and the long-forgotten "Legal Eagles" (bonus points to anyone who can remember the Rod Stewart pop-hit from that soundtrack). Later I saw him in "Sneakers," and somewhere along the way I caught his definitive role in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" alongside Paul Newman.
As a native Utahn, to me Redford was always the local movie star, the guy who lived somewhere behind that big fence you see during fall drives on the Alpine Loop. From a perspective like that, "All is Lost" almost becomes a metaphor for Redford's career: a long path of isolation that has weathered him down from his early days as a dashing leading man to a successful director, to a weary-eyed veteran — still capable, still relevant, but far closer to his end than to his prime.
Through all of it, Redford is still a compelling figure on the big screen, and more interesting than you might expect in a 100-minute film that almost completely lacks dialogue. "All is Lost" is a draining experience to watch (pun intended?), but I don't necessarily mean that in a bad way. Its lack of detail and substance might be aggravating to some viewers, but the blank palette puts you in a position to run free with your own interpretation, and I have a tough time believing that wasn't director J.C. Chandor's intention all along. "All is Lost" demands engagement by making it a challenge for its audience to engage.
"All is Lost" is rated PG-13 for some violence and gore (Redford patching up a gash on his forehead), and a single use of the "F-word."
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on the "KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English Composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at www.woundedmosquito.com.