There was a discrete pro-gression of personal opinions that attended my viewing of All is Lost, the lost-at-sea tale from director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call) and starring Robert Redford as a lone yachtsman, opening Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre, Cinemark Valley View and Regal Crocker Park.
For the first 45 minutes, I was convinced that very soon I would become irreconcilably bored. The film chronicles a modern mariner's eight grueling days on the Indian Ocean after an accident, and there's an awful lot of small-scale play-by-play — pumping the bilge, tying knots, manufacturing meals, etc.
Like a lot of slow, minimalist foreign movies, this one, I thought, teetered on the brink of "entertainment," and seemed self-satisfied with its aspiration. For instance, after the creaky voice-over from Redford in the opening minutes, there is no speaking at all until Redford leans over a waterlogged radio and calmly issues a distress call. The silence — along with the utter lack of context — struck me as sort of gimmicky.
For the next 20-or-so minutes, when I realized forcefully that I was the opposite of bored, I suspected that All is Lost might be a good movie after all, but maybe not much more than something Esquire would get a raging hard-on over: You know, a real man's-man film, one which celebrates the ingenuity and resolve of a fashionable guy who knows how to work with his hands and use a sextant. (Plus, the seascape cinematography makes The Perfect Storm look like something affiliated with Sega Genesis).
But for the film's final 45 minutes, when I was what you might call enraptured, I became conscious that the film had crossed a line. This shit was amazing. Redford's performance — already virtuosic as a solo act, but even more so as a silent one — is a lock for an Oscar nomination.
At 77 years old, he is a spectacle to behold, a living legend, not acting so much as just existing up there. There's a moment when, in the darkness of his boat's cabin, hours before it will most certainly sink, he pulls out a shaving kit and shaves. Shaves! His character is identified in the credits only as "Our Man," and his lack of personal history suddenly becomes less bothersome when you realize that you already know him: He's the guy from The Sting and All the Presidents' Men and The Natural.
And his plight becomes increasingly dire as the days progress. His yacht's structural damage is soon beyond repair. The weather's failure to cooperate is, like, totally hostile. Sharks are involved. Provisions and hope run on empty. "Total indifference" is reckoned with in a face-to-face way.
What we have here is nothing less than Man v. God, and you realize just how significantly more potent and moving it is than what the film could have been, a high-end Man v. Wild. This movie is a journey — for Redford and the viewer — a solo voyage that even Hemingway himself might have envied. J.C. Chandor, who has now demonstrated a remarkable breadth of talent with Margin Call and All is Lost, has selected picture-perfect imagery and motifs to tell this story with Redford at its literal helm.
To say nothing of the film's final moments — a masterpiece finale — our man, in moments of fear or frustration, consults a Celestial Navigation for Mariners book. Rest assured that the "navigating" which this film both probes and inspires concerns more than just stars.