All Is Lost is filmmaking stripped down to its bare bones. One character. One setting. One problem. In the wrong hands, it could feel like a thought experiment or a dramatic exercise. But lucky for us, this isn’t the case. Written and directed by J.C. Chandor (Margin Call) and starring Robert Redford (who, pushing 80, gives one of the finest performances of his career), All Is Lost is a man-versus-nature story where both man and nature are more than worthy matches for one another.
We meet “Our Man” (as he is noted in the credits) first in voice-over as he composes a farewell message in a bottle to his loved ones. We then flash back eight days earlier and bear witness to the first of the story’s troubles — a renegade freight container that collides with Our Man’s yacht, punching a hole into the hull. Things grow steadily worse from there. Imagine every terrible thing that can happen to a man in the middle of the ocean; most of what you just imagined happens over the course of this film’s hour-and-40-minute runtime.
As the lead, Redford handles every obstacle flung his way with a quiet and steady competence that feels more heroic than anything we’ve seen Marvel’s The Avengers do to date. From a stylistic standpoint, All Is Lost reads kind of like a novel in reverse; we get bombarded with visuals, but little to go on in the way of dialogue. Like Ryan Gosling’s no-name driver in Drive, Redford’s character is a man of little words. (He gets less than three minutes of talking time here.) It is a rare film that dares to make its audience work this hard and trusts its viewers to be this smart. Intellectually, emotionally, though, it’s a tough watch. But if they endure it, All Is Lost rewards its viewers handsomely.