By Eleanor Ringel Cater
As rigorous as it is remarkable, “All Is Lost” could easily be characterized as “Gravity at Sea.” You’ll understand me better after you see it.
The movie stars Robert Redford. Co-stars him, too. And he plays all the supporting roles.
What I’m saying is “All Is Lost” is a one-man tour-de-force, a haunting meditation on old men — unbelievably, the Sundance Kid is now 77 — and the sea.
Director J.C. Chandor’s only other film couldn’t be more different. The verbally and financially acrobatic “Margin Call” is a minor classic of economy and ensemble acting, craftily capturing the survivor mentality that can happen when a Wall Street firm goes into freefall. Everywhere you look, there are A-plus actors: Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, Zachary Pinto, Simon Baker, Paul Bettany, just for a start.
Conversely, in “All Is Lost,” nobody and no thing keeps Redford company. Not a tiger named Richard Parker, nor a soccer ball named Wilson, or even a wisecracking George Clooney.
Redford is all alone and all at sea. It begins quietly enough. Redford — or Our Man as he’s called in the credits — realizes his 39-foot yacht is taking in water. Nothing to panic about — well, as we learn, nothing for a seasoned sailor like Redford to panic about.
A submerged container ship carrying sneakers, has nicked a hole in the boat’s hull. Redford goes to work immediately, patching the hole, pumping out water, checking to see if any of his communications equipment has survived the unfortunate collision (It hasn’t).
What follows is an explicit demonstration of the old axiom, “Life is what happens while you’re making other plans.” Each time Redford solves one problem, another arises. Yet he patiently, confidently, plods on, even as each mishap manifests itself as incrementally worse than the last.
Chador and his star have patience too, as well as an unwavering confidence in us, their audience. Initially, “All Is Lost” is difficult to, well, get on board with — are we really going to watch this semi-ancient mariner rig up a manual water pump, outwit a shark, hoist a sail, do all that sailor-y stuff for two hours?
Well, yes, we are. And by the time 20 minutes have passed, you’ll be riveted. There are very few “pretty” shots here. No sunrise over Bali, as Clooney rhapsodize in ”Gravity.” Yet the film has an urgent, primitive beauty, which is one reason I urge you to see it in a theater.
Here is immovable object (Redford) vs. irresistible force (the Indian Ocean) as the restless sea tosses all it’s got at this resolute survivor.
At some point, the picture quietly eases into a luminous transcendence. You know, mortality, spirituality, the whole damn thing. Was even Job as cursed as Our Man?
Ultimately, this wondrous work comes down to two things: the purity and intensity of Chador’s vision and the extraordinary focus and, well, soul Redford brings to his performance.
And you don’t need to be a master sailor to grasp what “All Is Lost” is ultimately about. Keeping our head above water. As best we can.