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All is Lost

One man on a damaged boat for an hour and 45 minutes. Mostly; he spends some of those screen minutes in the water. Aside from a letter we hear him read in the opening scene, there’s less dialogue than you would find in a tweet, just enough to persuade you that this isn’t a silent film. And he has no one to communicate with, no ship’s log, not even a tiger or a soccer ball with a face painted on it.

That’s what you get in All Is Lost, the second film by writer-director J. C. Chandor. His debut, which not nearly enough people saw, was the excellent Margin Call, an all-star ensemble drama about a Wall Street firm facing a meltdown. His new film—one of the best I’ve seen this year—couldn’t be any more different if it tried.

This nameless sailor (he’s referred to in the end credits as “Our Man”) is played by Robert Redford. It’s hard to imagine any other actor being able to carry off this part successfully: Most would feel the need to be doing things for the camera, especially given that they’re not allowed to talk. If Redford ever does anything for the camera and not because it is what Our Man would be doing at that moment, I never spotted it.

We know about Our Man only what we infer. He’s probably successful if he can afford to own this boat, a 39-foot yacht, which appears to be comfortable if not lavish. He has some family, from the letter—a farewell note—we hear at the film’s opening, before it goes back eight days to show how he arrived in these circumstances.

In best existential fashion, his predicament is absurd, though never treated comically: In the Indian Ocean, 1,500 miles from land, he collides with a shipping container that has fallen from a cargo ship. It tears a hole in his hull, which he is able to fix. But the ensuing water damage ruined his radio. And there are storms on the horizon.

This may sound boring to you. If so, all I can say is have a good time at Thor 2. Chandor’s attention to detail makes the film plausible, but it’s the star who makes it absorbing. Redford has always projected an aura of competence and ability without ostentatious heroics, and Chandor puts that front and center. We sense that if something can be handled Our Man can do it; whether the challenge is more than he can cope with is what drives the film.

It’s hard not to look at the film allegorically, on whatever level you prefer. One thought: Accompanying the end credits is a song (by Alex Ebert of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros) whose lyrics I thought kept repeating the words “Our Man.” But what Ebert is actually singing is “Amen.”

Watch the trailer for All is Lost

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