American movies don’t come much bolder than All Is Lost, which dares to dispense with no fewer than three of the medium’s apparent essentials. First, its sole cast member is Robert Redford, who spends the entire film completely alone, interacting exclusively with inanimate objects. Second, it’s 99-percent dialogue-free, the only spoken words being a short letter read in voiceover at the outset, a futile effort to contact someone via radio in the middle, and some hoarse shouts near the end. Unlike Tom Hanks’ castaway, Redford’s desperate sailor doesn’t narrate his thoughts to a volleyball, or to anything else; he’s knowable only by his actions. Which brings us to the third, most audacious, and most crucial omission: All Is Lost features no backstory whatsoever. Writer-director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call) begins the film at the very instant that crisis strikes, then moves relentlessly forward, without the usual needless bids for pathos involving the protagonist’s troubled past. (For a current example, see Sandra Bullock’s daughter in Gravity.) Not every drama would benefit from being pared down to its essence in this way, but many surely would.
Pointedly unnamed (the closing credits call him “Our Man”), All Is Lost’s seafaring protagonist awakens in the opening shot to discover that his small boat, the Virginia Jean, has been rammed by a shipping container full of tennis shoes, which apparently fell off another ship and went adrift. Water is pouring in through the hole, so the first order of business is to patch it… but that’s merely one step in what proves to be a lengthy, increasingly strenuous life-or-death struggle. Since the boat is 1,700 nautical miles from the nearest land (a detail provided via an opening chyron), there’s virtually no chance of rescue. It’s simply a question of whether Redford’s experience and know-how can save him, or whether the movie’s title will prove to be grimly accurate. In most movies, the answer would be a foregone conclusion, but All Is Lost unfolds with such dogged, unsparing realism that the ordinary rules of popular fiction clearly don’t apply. And so the viewer observes one improvised solution after another, as fresh water dwindles and hope slowly fades.
At 77, Redford isn’t exactly a typical senior citizen, and Chandor doesn’t seem to have cast him in order to fashion some allegory about mortality. It’s the actor’s longstanding remoteness and self-effacement that Chandor taps into here, to superb effect. Arguably, the performance is too single-minded to achieve real greatness, but its utter lack of showmanship is precisely what the movie requires; at its best, All Is Lost could almost be a documentary about survival at sea, though it’s more starkly elemental than even nature docs usually get. Alex Ebert’s score gets a tad intrusive here and there (a problem magnified by how little music there is overall), and the ending is ambiguous in that “lady or the tiger” way that always feels overly cute (a problem magnified, at least for some, by the religious implication of one possibility). Mostly, though, the film is a triumph of dramatic minimalism, making the crutches that screenwriters tend to lean on—expository dialogue, emotional outbursts, and especially the dreaded backstory—seem utterly superfluous. Who is “Our Man”? What did he do in life? Why was he out there? It doesn’t matter. All that matters is this moment, and the next moment, and the moment after that.