The deep lines of Robert Redford’s weathered, tanned face have, in an interesting way, become a fascinating cinematic landscape, and you’ll get to know them well in J.C. Chandor’s new film All Is Lost, because he’s the only person in it. Billed only as “Our Man,” Redford plays a gentleman sailor whose yacht collides with an abandoned container in the middle of the Indian Ocean, and spends the rest of the film trying first to save his ship, then himself. It’s mostly a wordless performance — no one else is there (he’s given no “Wilson” equivalent), so there is no one to talk to, and this isn’t one of those contrived screenplays where our protagonists talks to themselves endlessly for our benefit. Aside from a couple of cries for help and, at a moment of genuine despair, the expulsion of exactly the four-letter word you might use in the same situation, the picture is free of dialogue — though it begins with his voice-over, halting and uncertain, writing a letter near the end of his journey. “I fought ‘till the end,” he writes. “I’m not sure what that is worth, but know that I did.”
“As an actor,” Redford explained at the press conference following Monday’s New York Film Festival media screening, “the idea that attracted me was that you could be completely absorbed with the character, and hope that the silence would allow the audience to come in with you. And be part of your experience.” He’s right; with the elimination of dialogue, there’s less “going on” in a movie like this, but paradoxically enough, it requires greater concentration.
And as a result of that concentration, you are more empathetic towards the character, and have a rooting interest in him. He’s resourceful and smart (“He was a good sailor,” Redford clarified, “but not a perfect sailor”), and because you’re paying such close attention, you see him thinking, working through solutions, making repairs, figuring it out. He’s got his books and his maps and his navigation equipment and he’s gonna solve this; we know absolutely nothing about the character’s background or what brought him there, but he seems to be the kind of successful man who is not used to coming up against something that he cannot overcome. But this may be that thing.
It’s interesting to see this kind of daring work from Redford, a Hollywood legend whose increased influence off-screen (as founder of the Sundance Film Festival and director of films like Quiz Show) has been almost precisely balanced with the declining challenges of his acting roles (in forgettable films like The Clearing, An Unfinished Life, and his own Lions for Lambs). But if the narrative of All Is Lost is an endurance test for “Our Man,” it’s equally one for the actor playing him — and Redford seems drawn to the challenge. These days, he explained, Hollywood has an abundance of “players… agents, publicist, trainers, all these characters, advisors… that get in the way of you and the person you’re going to be working with.” He liked the direct relationship with writer/director Chandor (Margin Call), and the kind of one-on-one intensity that resulted in this bravura performance.
In spite of its solitary nature, this is not a showy performance. With our total attention and a camera in close proximity, Redford steadfastly refuses to overplay, so we glimpse his mounting frustration in throwaway moments, his unspoken sadness on his face as he regards his sinking ship, and the whirlwind of complex emotions flashing across his face as he writes (silently) the letter we’ve already heard.
The film itself doesn’t quite match his brooding intensity (in the Grown-Up Survival Tales™ derby, it’s neither as moving as The Grey nor as exhilarating as Gravity, and it would’ve benefited from a release before that film and not after). But it’s a vital, exciting piece of work from Mr. Redford, an actor whom you’d have been forgiven for counting out by now.
All Is Lost screens this week at the New York Film Festival. It’s out October 18 in limited release.