All Is Lost ★★★★

“I have always hoped for more for you all. I will miss you. I’m sorry.”

J. C. Chandor’s follow-up to his surprisingly suspenseful mile-a-minute Wall Street yarn ‘Margin Call’ has its flaws, but it also has guts, depth, and a star capable of holding the screen without a net. Aside from him being essentially the personification of the will to survive, Chandor gives Robert Redford’s seadog scant backstory, no name (he’s just “Our Man”), few words, and little hope. The first orienting note is starkly disorienting: we know he is “1,700 nautical miles” from the Sumatra Straits if that helps. When his boat is unfortunately gored by a partly-submerged cargo holder, Chandor casts him further adrift on the ocean battling the elements in a bruising manner that’s worthy of Hemingway at his least sentimental, where Our Man fights to keep soul and body together in the face of isolation, injury, storms, sharks, and sheer shitty luck. Watching Our Man as he attends to the practicalities of drainage, eating, shaving, and navigation, Chandor never cheats on his minimalist mission. 

Borrowing one of Redford’s few words spouted, this is cinema du “fuuuuck!” at its purest. And without resorting to faux-emotive flashbacks or any get-out clauses, Chandor’s focus on one man and the elements is resolute. Our Man is resourceful, but so is Chandor: with his clinical, procedural attention to the minutiae of wave, rope, and cleat, he navigates tight spaces with a flair that immerses and terrifies as waves flip Our Man’s boat like a fateful coin-toss. With setting a well-used second character, sound becomes a third: Alex Ebert’s elegiac score is over-indulged, but the lapping water, whistling winds, walloping waves, and deathly silence ripple with a subtle poetic suggestion that amount to us feeling as alone, stranded, weather-beaten and breathless as our near-wordless hero.

In the eye of the storm, Chandor’s primary character holds firm. Redford’s charisma shines like the stars he traverses, but his wrinkles and restraint speak loudest, helping Chandor balance metaphors for age with the immediacy of events. Stripped of most of the things that made him a star, both externally (he was 77 at the time of release) and internally (gone is his affable charm), he gives the kind of raw, fearless, electric performance that actors of his stature and consequence all too often shy away from. ‘All is Lost’ isn’t safe, but then again, Redford has never really played it safe.

In the time of COVID, much of Chandor’s thrilling, thoughtful cinema hit too close to home: who wants to watch a film about someone with dwindling resources and mounting cabin fever facing setback after setback with the prospect of his mortality on the line? And yet, ‘All is Lost’ is more uplifting than punishing. There’s an unorthodox but nevertheless commendable integrity in taking one of our most famous stars and stripping him down to the heroic core of his screen persona. The teasing climax leaves us to answer the film’s essential question: what would you cling to as death looms? But two things are left in no doubt. The Sundance Kid hasn’t lost it - and Chandor is quite a find.