One of the first things Robert Redford says in “All Is Lost” — and it’s also one of the last things he says — is “I’m sorry.” His character, whose name we never learn, is in a damaged boat on the open sea, writing a note to his loved ones that he has little reason to believe they will ever read. “All is lost,” he reports. All except “soul and body, and a half-day’s rations.”
There’s poetry in those mournful words, and there’s poetry woven throughout the film, a beautifully gripping survivalist story written and directed by J.C. Chandor (“Margin Call”) to be simple, uncluttered, and, except for that prologue, almost entirely wordless. Redford’s sailor (the credits just call him Our Man) is alone on his yacht, and unlike Sandra Bullock’s similarly stranded astronaut in “Gravity,” he doesn’t talk to himself much. That means there isn’t a lot of explaining as he goes about trying to repair his boat, signal for help, and conserve his resources. Chandor trusts us to follow along even if we don’t know the particulars of the nautical world as well as Our Man does. We’re with him all the way regardless.
Having established the direness of the situation in that prologue, Chandor takes us back to eight days earlier, when Our Man awakens to find the hull of his yacht breached by a shipping container that must have fallen off a freighter. The accident is random and unforeseeable — a cruel twist of fate. We’re in the territory of one of the classic conflicts that our high school English teachers drilled into us: Man vs. Nature. It doesn’t get much simpler than that. I mean, the guy is even called Our Man.
In an era of over-complicated movie plots and effects-heavy spectacle, it’s refreshing — heck, it’s exhilarating — to see a film so stripped-down and unadorned. There are no flashbacks to Our Man’s life before this trip. We don’t know what the purpose of the journey was, or where he was going, or who his loved ones are. Why? Because none of those details are relevant to the matter at hand, which is simply this: how long can a person survive in a hostile, unfeeling wilderness? How long before his spirit breaks and he gives up?
Redford’s performance is crucial, obviously, and the 77-year-old Hollywood legend has never been better. Without any grand gestures or showy theatrics, he quietly conveys the character’s resourcefulness, pragmatism, frustration, and fear. Our Man is courageous and undaunted, yet realistic about his plight. With Redford as his avatar, Chandor skillfully drives the stark terrors of the open ocean — everything from dehydration to sharks — into our hearts. The suspense is fierce, but even more intense are the feelings of admiration we have for our hero. What a piercing, elegant, emotionally powerful story.
A- (1 hr., 46 min.; )