It’s been a spectacular last few weeks at the multiplex. Between “Gravity,” “Captain Phillips” and “12 Years a Slave” — to name just a few — even the most casual filmgoer now has reason to rush to the theater every weekend, with the eager devotion of the most compulsive cineaste.
This weekend welcomes yet another must-see to the marquee. “All Is Lost,” a harrowing man-at-sea adventure starring Robert Redford, reprises this fall’s theme of protagonists isolated and adrift in the midst of an indifferent, wantonly cruel universe. But writer-director J.C. Chandor distills that idea to its visually purest form yet, in a one-man study of revealing character through action, showing not telling and taking filmgoers on a physical and existential voyage that proves why big-screen movies can still matter.
The beating heart at the center of Chandor’s daunting exercise is Redford himself, who plays his nameless adventurer in a virtually wordless performance with the wary determination a generation came to know and adore throughout the 1970s. His still-handsome face is now weathered and aged and grows more painfully sunburned over the course of his character’s week-long ordeal, which begins when the boat he’s sailing is rammed by an errant shipping container somewhere in the Indian Ocean.
Like those masterful films that have preceded it this year, “All Is Lost” pivots on a random, ultimately terrifying encounter between one person and the mechanistic forces of globalization. But the presence of Redford adds a layer of pathos that surely won’t be lost on the filmgoers who came of age with his golden good looks, as the avatar of a generation contemplates mortality that looms closer by the minute.
Chandor — who arrived on the scene a few years ago with the assured Wall Street thriller “Margin Call” — shows similar confidence and skill, as well as newfound ambition, working on a bravura scale. He filmed “All Is Lost” at the same Baja location as “Titanic,” and his film possesses the same old-fashioned sense of spectacle, all the more impressive for being so self-contained and finely tuned. Because there is almost no dialogue, the film consists mostly of Redford’s protagonist thinking and solving problems, methodical, unhurried processes that don’t immediately lend themselves to on-screen thrills.
But Chandor’s attention to detail, and the expressiveness and utter believability with which Redford goes about the anything-but-mundane business of surviving, make “All Is Lost” a technically dazzling, emotionally absorbing, often unexpectedly beautiful experience.
Like “Cast Away” and “Life of Pi” before it, “All Is Lost” joins a fine tradition of stranded-survivor narratives. Chandor takes the form one step further: Redford’s character, called Our Man in the film’s press notes, doesn’t even have a volleyball or Bengal tiger to talk to. This is “Life of I,” in the deepest philosophical sense of that word, a layer of meaning that Redford never italicizes or underlines, but simply explores through behavior and facial expression.
Swinging his way through the scuttled boat, hoisting himself up to make repairs, squinting into the sun as he devises shrewd ways to find fresh drinking water, Redford never lets one false or vain moment slip through. (When he finally lets rip a profanity most audience members will have been thinking for quite some time, the relief is palpable.) At a time when his 70-something colleagues are trying desperately to prove they’re still hip, macho and please-God relevant, he quietly delivers a one-man master class in the art of screen acting in what is arguably the finest and certainly the bravest performance of his career.
As a celebration of instinct, ingenuity, stamina and resilience, “All Is Lost” is also a celebration of Redford’s career — on and off-screen — in which all those qualities have played such a salient part. The film hovers along that thin membrane between survival and disaster that describes so much of the Hollywood political economy. Ever on guard against the industry’s most seductive blandishments, Redford brings the watchfulness that has served him so well to every moment of “All Is Lost,” infusing what is already a perfectly entertaining adventure with rich veins of symbolism and meta-meaning. Even at the worst of his Joblike trials, it’s impossible not to imagine that Redford will make it: After all, he’s Our Man.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains brief strong language. 107 minutes.