See “All Is Lost” thirsty. Or peckish. The film is such a sensory ride — predicated on simple bodily states of feeling cold, or soggy, or fatigued, or sun-battered, or going mad with fear — that a bit of forced empathy can only sharpen the experience.
This is the rare disaster movie told about one person, and the rare movie of any sort with a one-person cast: Robert Redford, playing a sailor credited simply as “Our Man.” He rarely speaks, and what scant exposition he offers is mostly through the possessions scattered around his 39-foot yacht. And all that happens is, he wakes to find a stray shipping container has punctured his hull. He’s somewhere in the Indian Ocean, alone, and the boat is taking on water, and he doesn’t want to die.
If you’re just coming from a sushi buffet or a family potluck, this won’t seem quite as scary, even as the chaotic days roll by. But go in a little parched, a little hungry, and you’ll feel how an emergency expands once it’s shrunk to the size of a single, hollow stomach.
What we can tell about Our Man suggests he’s not accustomed to scarcity. Redford, who’s 77, carries himself around the boat with an assuredness that suggests Our Man is a longtime hobbyist, at least, but one expecting leisure. With his electricity on the fritz, he cracks a vintage book from his shelf called “Celestial Navigation for Yachtsmen,” seemingly for the first time. His foodstuffs — packaged dinners, cans of organic beans — hint at yuppie tastes. His clothes and outerwear look like recent buys, rather than broken-in favorites.
A curt monologue in the opening moments gives us hints at his life: Convinced of his impending death, he apologizes to his loved ones, says he always tried to do right, and apologizes again. He’s just a guy in a great deal of trouble.
A more sentimental director (or, frankly, any major studio) would’ve forced more words into Our Man’s mouth — he would’ve written more than that single letter, or read old notes (the one he finds, he tosses aside, still in the envelope), or anthropomorphized a volleyball, or bargained with God. Writer/director J.C. Chandor — whose only other feature, “Margin Call,” earned him an Oscar nod for its screenplay — prefers deeds over words.
His show-don’t-tell approach packs 106 minutes of movie into a script purportedly just 32 pages long. Aside from the sounds of water slapping the hull, the rumble of approaching storms, and a few occasional grunts, it’s virtually a silent film.
The minimalism turns “All Is Lost” into a multilayered puzzle. The first order of business throughout is, how is he going to survive? Each move he makes, and the order in which he makes them, become objects of instant scrutiny. Because he’s no superhero, but rather a 77-year-old dude who knocks back most of a bottle of amber liquor when he’s stressed, and doesn’t think ahead to when he should deploy his storm jib, there’s room for critique.
And that’s the second mystery that you get to tease apart: What makes this fellow tick? What does it say for him that he doesn’t fret, rarely mutters, sleeps soundly each night and takes a moment to shave in the minute before a storm wallops him? Will he hold together?
Whatever insouciance Our Man displays early on evaporates as his situation goes from bad to cataclysmic. His journey, writ small, is everyone’s. We’re alive, bad things happen, we do our best, we think we’re going to be fine and, gradually, we realize we’re probably gonna die. Our Man rides with his mortality in smaller and smaller confines. Redford’s great in this part, because we believe instantly he could be so cocksure as to find himself in this situation. He’s convincingly rich, retired, riding the seas in search of the next challenge? Well, he found it. Yacht or not, the world’s poorest man is the one who doesn’t know where his next drink of water is coming from.