Film review by: Gordon K. Smith
It’s been forty years since Robert Redford got his only Oscar nomination for acting, and that was for THE STING, hardly an acting showcase. Redford is 77 now, and since then, he did win an Oscar, for his directing of 1980’s ORDINARY PEOPLE. With the release of the gripping survival drama ALL IS LOST, Redford delivers the performance of his career, one that started over a half-century ago with acclaimed performances on stage, TV and screen. When he wins this overdue award in February, Redford will become the first person to win Oscars for both directing and acting (many have been nominated for both, but no one’s won both before).
This would also be the first Oscar awarded to a character who is the only one onscreen for the entire film, goes unnamed, and who says (after an opening voice-over) only about ten words (one of them obscene) throughout. Redford’s “Our Man” is a retired, solitary yachtsman who wakes up to a collision between his vessel and a breakaway shipping container, somewhere in the Indian Sea.
We watch, sometimes breathlessly, as the man’s dilemma goes from challenging to an absolute struggle for life and death. After a raging storm destroys his standard equipment, the man must rely on his wits and a long-traditional seaman’s tool, the sextant, to navigate his way back into the oceanic shipping lanes in hope of rescue, the same lanes from whence drifted the container that started his ordeal. But even then, as we discover, rescue is not assured.
Of course, it’s possible, with drama this heavy (but not heavy-handed), to read all kinds of things into ALL IS LOST. It could be an allegory of the last stage of any man’s life, when the decades of struggle and conflict finally start taking their toll, but he never gives up the fight against the wrath of God and nature, and remembers the essential things (Our Man tries to leave notes for his family when things look dire). Or it’s just a smashing adventure yarn, with the benefit of state of the art digital effects that looks and sound utterly real (this and the fall’s other beautifully crafted survival thriller, GRAVITY, demonstrate how CGI can be a great storytelling tool in the right hands).
Real-life men and women who are expert boaters will get even more out of the insider detail in this script, written by Director J. C. Chandor, whose only previous film was 2011’s MARGIN CALL. A veteran yachtsman I met recently who’d seen ALL IS LOST at an advance screening gave it his seal of approval, questioning only the length of time Our Man takes to react to the oncoming squall. But, anyone can thrill to the Golden Boy of ’70s cinema in the role he seems born to play, perfectly suited to his weathered face and remarkable physicality (let’s hope it isn’t studio hype that he did all of his own stunts. We should all be so lucky at 77).
It’s notable that both movies ALL IS LOST and GRAVITY clock in at a little over 90 minutes. Both depend on how much you can enjoy watching people freeze, starve, drown, dehydrate, or asphyxiate to death. For me, not so much, and I was ready for both to wrap it up when they did. LOST has the advantage of a powerful one-man show at its core, one that shouldn’t be missed.