“All Is Lost,” a man-and-his-boat tale written and directed by J.C. Chandor (and worlds away from his equally fine 2011 debut “Margin Call”), sounds, on paper, as if it shouldn’t work at all. It’s a one-character movie (unless you count the boat), with almost no dialogue, in which we watch a nameless character struggle mightily against the forces of nature, bad luck and exhaustion. But something miraculous happens, as he copes with patching holes and finding supplies in cupboards and tending his own wounds — slowly and quietly, he becomes a hero; we become a part of him.
And Robert Redford, as the nameless sailor, displays such vividness and quiet charisma that you can’t take your eyes off him, even as you tell yourself that basically you’re just watching a guy who’s having a very, very bad few days at sea. As the film begins, we get the one bit of personal detail we’ll ever get from this character: a note he’s writing, to whoever his loved one(s) might be, that reads simply “I will miss you. I’m sorry.” We know nothing else about this man, which makes Redford’s performance all the more remarkable: We care about him because of the wordless determination with which he sets about his tasks, the kind weariness in his expression, the ever-fading glimmer of optimism and hope in his eyes.
The film encompasses eight days at sea in a 39-foot yacht, beginning with a collision with a shipping container that punches a hole in the boat’s side. The man fixes it, with the ease of someone who’s made such repairs all his life, but things become complicated: The patch doesn’t hold, weather worsens, the radio is broken, he’s off-course and exhausted. He screams just once, in anger, at the sky; it’s like a crack of thunder.
Chandor and Redford make every moment matter in this fascinating film (despite an ending that will divide audiences). It’s ultimately less about a nautical crisis than a man gradually realizing, in every sense of the word, that he is lost. You see it in his face, his posture, his economical movements — and you’ll be astonished by how very, very much you wish him found.
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