‘All Is Lost’: Nature, the conqueror

October 15, 2013

all is lost

Like bookends – or perhaps a double-feature for adrenaline junkies – “All Is Lost” comes on the heels of “Gravity” with the distaff and earthbound version of a similar story.

But where Sandra Bullock barely stopped talking during “Gravity,” Robert Redford barely says a word in the course of “All Is Lost.” The eloquence of his silence is powerful.

He is, according to the title card, 1,700 nautical miles from land in the Indian Ocean, a sailor in a nicely appointed boat, by himself. Well, not that little: It’s the kind with both sails and a motor, a small kitchen and bunk below deck.

All of which becomes beside the point when our man (he is nameless) awakens to the sight and sound of water lapping at his ankles. His boat has collided with a cargo container, which apparently has fallen off a ship and is bobbing in the ocean, spilling its contents – a load of kids’ sneakers – into the calm sea.

The hard steel corner of the container has punched a hole in the side of his boat, just at the waterline, destroying his electronics. So, after moving the laptop and CB radio up to the deck where it’s dry, he disengages from the obstruction and sets about trying to repair his boat. He’s knowledgeable and well-equipped, as well as patient, applying layers of epoxy to fabric, creating increasingly hardening layers to patch the hole and keep the ocean out.

He starts to adjust to the new normal – cold food, no electronics to guide him, teaching himself to use a sextant and to desalinate his water. He charts his course back to the shipping lanes, in hopes of getting help. But the gods, it seems, have decided to make him their plaything.

And so he endures a cascading series of disasters. Capable of surviving any one of them because he is determined and quick-thinking, he cannot cope with their cumulative power: the damage to his boat, the sheer power of the weather and the ocean, his own decreasing strength as he fights one survival battle after another.

Chandor, who made the talkative and exciting “Margin Call,” for which he won a screenwriting Oscar, goes in the opposite direction here. There is no dialogue – other than the man’s plaintive measured distress call when he momentarily gets his radio working. Yet we can easily read Redford’s thoughts, because they are the same thoughts we’d have in that situation: What now?

You marvel at his resourcefulness, such as thinking to fill a container with fresh water and stowing it just before a howling storm hits, or his later idea for capturing pure water using condensation. More to the point, you can feel his pure survival spirit, his will to plug on despite what seem to be increasingly difficult odds.

At the age of 77, Redford has been a movie star for more than 40 years – which sometimes disguises the fact that he’s also an outstanding and subtle performer. This may be the greatest challenge he has faced as an actor: a wordless role in a film in which he is the only character. But he commands the screen, shedding the mantle of the star to become an Everyman.

As a result, he becomes a strong contender in what will be a crowded Oscar field for best actor. It’s a bravura performance in a gripping film that joins “Gravity” in the competition to be the year’s most harrowing.

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