review all is lost

Editor’s note: Our review of All Is Lost originally ran during this year’s Cannes Film Festival, but we’re re-posting it as the film opens today in theatrical release.

J.C. Chandor follows up his sturdy 2011 debut Margin Call with a staggeringly ambitious if niche project that will appeal most to fans of its star – and, in fact, its only actor – Robert Redford. If the actor is better known for his iconography than his acting prowess these days – though is highly respected as a director and founder of the Sundance Film Festival – he delivers what is easily one of his all-time best performances as a lone man lost at sea.

Much hype has followed the film considering the claim from Redford that the drama unfolds free of dialogue, and aside from a brief opening narration, a desperate plea to a fuzzy radio signal, and an enraged expletive, this is true. Chandor’s minimalist effort begins with the man discovering a hole in his boat, and finishes with the very end of his predicament – whether that is death or rescue will be the prime question occupying viewers’ minds.

At age 76, it’s safe to say that few expected Redford to come out of nowhere with such an impressive, physically demanding performance, one that with the right marketing and distribution could garner him awards attention, especially given his appreciation within the industry. Considering that Chandor smartly doesn’t have the actor talking to himself in order to give viewers a more overt through-point for the man’s actions, it’s all down to Redford’s facial expressions and actions to convey the desperation of the situation.

Above all else, All Is Lost is a fascinating experiment, even if few viewers are going to elect to see it twice simply by the nature of its testing minimalism. It would be fair to say that not every second of the film grips – the 105-minute runtime could probably have been chopped down to 85 or 90 without compromising the whole – but the singular performance along with an array of splendid visuals – including some luminous computer-enhanced glimpses of fish swimming beneath the man’s dingy – make even the drier patches never less than watchable.

Indeed, the pace is as deliberate as you could expect from a film about an OAP marooned in the middle of the ocean, but Chandor earns plenty of goodwill by sticking to his guns rather than trying to exaggerate the situation; there are no Life of Pi-esque flourishes here, just pure, brutal nature at work. As a result of the wordless approach, sound design is especially important; Chadnor thankfully makes the most of ominous creaking wood, clanging metal and lapping water to cement the man’s isolation, and an effective score during the film’s more active moments.

While the film’s only remote equivalent of an antagonist might be a gang of sharks at one point glimpsed swimming near the man’s dingy, it is the actual decamping to the dingy that best sets up a tense third act. The constant fear of the floating device becoming somehow damaged – perhaps by way of the sharks – helps whip the tale back into fighting form just when it seems like it’s about to start flagging.

The film’s final moments are liable to divide viewers; some might perceive them as a cop-out to the tone of the pic up to that point, but at the same time, there is a certain ambiguity and symbolic quality about the close that will surely have audiences questioning quite what they’ve just seen. Whether the ending strikes the right chord or not, this is a film more than most that is better concerned with the journey than the destination.

Redford’s fiercely committed and quite brilliant performance is the reason to see this daringly minimalist, slightly overlong curio.

The Upside: Robert Redford steals a show that is his for the taking; Chadnor directs with a sure hand, delivering some astounding visuals along the way

The Downside: It’ll turn off casuals instantly and its box office potential is virtually nil as a result of the wordlessness; a few sections of the slightly overlong film challenge viewer patience

On the Side: All is Lost was filmed in the very same water tank built for James Cameron’s blockbuster juggernaut Titanic.

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