There are moments while talking with Robert Redford when you can see that 1970s sex symbol peeking through from a weathered 77-year-old face — starting when he rises from a couch in a New York publicist’s office, looking amazingly fit in jeans, white T-shirt and cordovan cowboy boots. Settling in for a brief interview, one’s tempted to lean across the coffee table and tuck back a lock of his thick, only slightly graying hair, just like Barbra Streisand did in “The Way We Were.” This smile is still straight out of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” The voice as seductive as it was in “All the President’s Men” or “Three Days of the Condor.”
In case it isn’t obvious, in other words, Redford’s still got it. And anyone needing proof of that fact will be convinced by his newest movie, a man-against-nature thriller called “All Is Lost” in which he plays a nameless character whose sailboat runs afoul of a shipping container in the Indian Ocean. The film, written and directed by J.C. Chandor (“Margin Call”) chronicles his week-long attempt to keep his boat afloat and stay alive. And Redford thoroughly dominates the drama, in which he’s the sole star and in which he utters just a few words of dialogue, putting his body through moments of watery peril, hopelessness and existential terror.
For the 106-minute running time of “All Is Lost,” Redford delivers something of a master class in the art of screen acting, using his prime instrument — his body — to deliver a galvanizing, physically grueling, deeply emotional performance that would be electrifying coming from someone half his age. The fact that it’s Redford up there, battling the elements, refusing to go gently, embodying the hopes, fears, desires and recriminations of the generation of which he’s been so emblematic, makes “All Is Lost” not just thrilling, but profound.
On this rainy day in New York, Redford bears not a trace of the stresses he went through making “All Is Lost,” which was filmed in the same Baja, Calif., water tanks as “Titanic.” He’s even getting used to the idea that the movie is a success — a fact that first dawned on him at the Cannes Film Festival, where he saw it for the first time at a gala black-tie premiere. “I had not seen anything,” he says. “I had not looked at the monitor between takes, I didn’t go to dailies, I took myself out of that. So when the lights came down I didn’t know what to expect.” He was prepared for the worst, he recalls. “And when it went the other way, I just didn’t know what to do with it. I did not know how to behave.”
It’s entirely in keeping with Redford’s wary, often ambivalent relationship with success that he didn’t quite know what to make of his latest one. This is a man who came to New York in the 1950s in order to be a painter, and instead found himself drawn — despite his inborn shyness and California-bred contempt for shallow movie culture — to acting. A man who, when stardom began to find him in the 1960s, responded by buying up land in Utah, the better to retreat from it. The man who, when he saw the studio culture changing in the 1980s, didn’t “lean in,” but built his own nonprofit institute, where he could nurture filmmakers interested in making the small, independent, often subversive films he himself produced whenever the system would let him. This is the man whose watchwords have always been: At the height of your greatest success, always go back to zero.