The old man and the sea

Robert Redford sacrifices his body for a winning performance in All Is Lost

The conditions during the making of All Is Lost were so gruelling — howling winds and storm-whipped waters — that Robert Redford permanently damaged the hearing in his left ear. I don’t know how upset he was at the injury (he’s 77 after all and I’m sure no stranger to ailments) but I suspect he feels it was totally worth it. All Is Lost is simply fantastic. Redford puts every inch of himself into the film creating an adventure stripped of all fantasy and bravado the ultimate man vs. nature tale.

The film opens with a brief prologue where Redford utters the only words spoken in the entire film. (Well except for “fuck” yelled in a later moment of understandable rage and exasperation.) He’s alone on a sailboat in the middle of the Indian Ocean. He’s a couple thousand miles (give or take) from the nearest shore; under the circumstances he may as well be nowhere. Director J.C. Chandor lets the camera gently float by as Redford calmly despairingly utters a few sentences — he’s sorry he made a mistake and all is lost.

We go back to eight days earlier. Redford awakes to find that his boat has rammed into a metal shipping container floating in the middle of the sea. The edge has rammed through the hull and the boat is rapidly taking on water. Redford is able to repair the hole and we observe him attending to the various jobs on the boat. It takes a lot to keep the small vessel afloat — applying a patch to the gaping hole in the ship positioning the sails and hoisting himself up the flag pole to repair a positioning system.

We don’t learn much about who Redford is — the camera occasionally lingers on a wedding ring and there are a few other clues that suggest his exile is self-imposed. Unlike Gravity a similarly themed tale All Is Lost isn’t at pains to establish a backstory for its hero that begs for resolution. The struggle to survive is palpable the ocean vast and unforgiving. There are some places the film suggests that people aren’t meant to go.

A storm appears on the horizon and Redford prepares for the worst. The sea rages and his boat is battered and destroyed. There are a few simple horrifyingly realistic moments of chaos and survival. Each day Redford’s hopes for rescue and survival narrow as his resources dwindle and his life hangs by a thread. His ingenuity is no match for the sea.

The film is merciless (it is called All Is Lost after all) though never tirelessly and depressingly so. Its meditative nature with long stretches given to Redford attending to routine tasks on the boat (and more desperate tactics later on) is utterly absorbing. Director Chandor appears like a ghostly observer getting intimately close to Redford one moment and drifting farther away as his hopes for survival grow more and more distant.

It’s Redford’s show and he’s hypnotizing — this is the kind of role that great actors (yes the famous ones) are made for. You can taste the salt water and hear the wind roaring in your ears; he’s that good. He clearly gives it everything he’s got pitting his elderly body against the force of the ocean. It gives him a serious beating. It’s a role that Redford had to wait a lifetime to play and reminds us why he was so entrancing in the first place.

Though the film’s depiction of fighting to stay alive while adrift at sea is harrowing and realistic it’s much more than a simple action flick. The whole setup is raw existentialism or a rejoinder to it depending on your point of view. Redford’s flesh-and-blood survival isn’t really the point. The idea of reprieve however is — whether that’s from a passing ship or a cold watery death. All Is Lost is pure cinema the kind of flick that will reward repeat viewings. It’s that good.