What would you do if you were alone and adrift in the Indian Ocean in a 39-foot yacht with a breached hull and no help in sight? If you were the unnamed character played by Robert Redford in “All Is Lost,” you would be very Hemingwayesque. During the film’s eight-day span you would utter not a single word save for a couple of well-known expletives. Now that’s what I call grace under pressure.
“All Is Lost” is written and directed by J.C. Chandor, whose debut feature, “Margin Call,” was as talky as this film is not. Redford’s character is referred to only as Our Man, which is a clue to Chandor’s mythic pretensions. In the movies, if you want to come across as mythic, it helps to be mute. This is a very American take on heroism, and not an especially realistic one. (Or maybe it’s British – Keep Calm and Sail On.) Imagine if Al Pacino were playing the lead here. He’d never shut up. (It would make a great “Saturday Night Live” sketch.)
If one buys into the whole grace under pressure thing, “All Is Lost” – the title is its own spoiler alert – is first-rate. The conception leaves itself open to satire, of course: I half expected Our Man to collide with the kid from “Life of Pi,” or Wilson the soccer ball from “Cast Away,” or be rescued by Tom Hanks from “Captain Phillips.” But of course, this is not how you’re supposed to respond to the film. In any case, adrift-in-the-ocean movies now qualify as a genre.
The problems for Our Man begin when he’s jolted awake by a collision with a cargo container left floating in the high seas. (A Chinese shipping container no less. Social commentary?) He methodically goes about patching the breach and bailing water from the boat. His radio equipment has been rendered unworkable.
What is he doing out there all alone? Chandor provides few clues. He flashes back from a voice-over of Our Man dictating a farewell letter to, apparently, an estranged wife or girlfriend, or also, perhaps, his children. Other than this, there’s almost nothing to discover about his history. (Less back story means more mythos.)
If he is meant to be a stand-in for the rest of us, all I can say is that Our Man is a lot better at celestial navigation than I am. He’s mostly averse to wearing hats, though, even though the sun beats down on him mercilessly. Maybe Chandor didn’t want to muss up Redford’s iconic mane. It’s not all sunshine, though. Violent storms announce themselves ominously from far off, sounding like timpani of the gods. When they hit, forget it.
There’s a black comic aspect to all this, like a “Road Runner” cartoon in which the best-laid plans keep getting blown to smithereens. But Chandor doesn’t go in for black comedy (not mythic enough). Our Man’s Sisyphean turmoil demonstrates not his hopelessness or frustration but, rather, his indomitability. Even the circling sharks seem cowed by his stick-to-it-iveness.
Chandor, within the confines he has set for himself, has done an excellent job of locking us into his hero’s predicament. And Redford, although I don’t really buy the mega-strong-and-silent routine, is effective, too. Touching even: When, from the relative safety of his lifeboat, he watches his yacht sink beneath the waves, he looks as if an old and injured friend were expiring before his eyes. The best moment in the movie, for me, is also the simplest. About to abandon ship, he goes to the mirror and shaves. In the eye of insanity, normalcy is a powerful potion. Grade: B+ (Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.)