All Is Lost Review: Robert Redford Goes Silent, With Astounding Results
Roll over The Artist and tell (the middle section of) Tree of Life the news! There's a new piece of wordless filmmaking in town, and it is a supremely confident and entertaining film, full of thrilling set-pieces. Robert Redford gives an impressively physical performance in a movie consistently alive with incident and detail, which announces the arrival of J.C. Chandor, after the promise of Margin Call as a great director.
The film shows one man's struggle to survive against the odds and against the elements, on a small sailing boat on the high seas. As the film opens, Redford's nameless character awakes to find that a hole has been torn into the hull of his boat, with water slowly sloshing into it. He sets about fixing it, in a series of well edited shots full of activity that immediately alert the viewer to Chandor's eye for texture, color and physicality, and to his talent for tight plotting. From there, adrift in the middle of the Indian Ocean, he sets about steering himself into a position where he can be rescued -- but of course storms and various other hindrances lie in his path. The premise constantly on the audience's mind during the events of the film is whether the man can somehow survive: it imbues the whole movie with fist-gnawing tension.
The film's success rests on its ability to engage the audience for a full, almost totally wordless 110 minutes. Notwithstanding a touch of voiceover at the beginning and a salty epithet at a time of great despair, the film has no dialogue at all. It has a perfectly serviceable score to accompany some of the more dramatic moments, which mercifully does not intrude or detract from the story itself. Instead, we are given a series of mesmerising vignettes showing Redford steering, planning, repairing, eating, trying to find solutions to the quandary he is in. All of this marks out his determination and his resourcefulness. His character is defined not by what he says, but by what he does. The audience's interest never lets up, because these scenes speak as clearly as any line of dialogue: the plot is intricate in each scene, but because we can never second-guess Redford's intentions, everything comes as a surprise. We are drawn in on a small scale, fascinated by the action at hand at any moment, and on a wider scale because of our will to see him succeed.
The qualities that are immediately apparent in the film are J. C. Chandor's flair for storytelling, and his hugely cinematic instincts, yielding an intuitive film full of texture and excitement. The roughness of the ropes, the squeaky rubber of Redford's dinghy out on the high seas; Redford's increasingly sun-ravaged face; the crash of the waves on his ship, and the way rain seems to have another sort of feel when it sticks to Redford's hair - these are all caught so vividly, giving the film an incredible immediacy. It puts the spectator right in the heart of the action, and gives us the breathtaking sense of being along on this adventure. In terms of storytelling, Chandor builds his film very well, with some tight, precise scenes followed by more obviously big and dramatic ones. Tension builds very convincingly, and Chandor is skilled at showing the passing of time, with elliptic editing and some sharp use of props - Redford's water running out, the progressive rising of water or wearing out of protective tape. So much is put there for the audience to work with, rather than spoonfed to us.
Redford does well with his role, giving an extremely physical performance whose great strength and weakness is that he is playing on his status as Robert Redford. It can be a shock to see the actor Robert Redford getting his trousers wet, climbing the mast of his boat, or being caught underwater: this gives the film a deal of force. But on occasion, his Redfordness detracts from the film just a little: his dye-job and perfect teeth, his upstandingness at all times, feel a little too starry, still, for this role. This is a very small objection: in the main, he conveys the thoughts and gradual despair of his character very well - and the film does a good job of pitting his imposing presence against a yet more awe-inspiring seascape.
By the time of the film's nerve-wracking ending (a coda that surprises and yet makes complete dramatic sense), the film has said everything it could, and used up every trick. You leave the film simultaneously drained and bullish, feeling the exaltation of having seen a truly skilful piece of filmmaking.