Film critic Matt Zoller Seitz once wrote that Cast Away would've been a great film if it began with Tom Hanks getting washed ashore on the island after the plane crash and ended with him eventually getting picked up by that cargo ship. None of that before-and-after junk regarding lost love Helen Hunt or making sure one FedEx package gets delivered to its destination—just a movie where its star is lost, scared and alone, trying to figure out his next move when the odds are stacked against him.
All Is Lost seems tailor-made for Seitz and others who prefer their man-versus-nature flicks to be just that. The latest movie this season featuring an A-list star trying to get out of a mind-blowingly dire situation, this one serves up Robert Redford as the subject in peril.
We first see Redford waking up in his boat as a cargo container adrift in the water punctures a hole on the side of his vessel. Although he patches it up in no time, he soon learns he'll have bigger issues to deal with as a violent storm approaches. It eventually tosses him and his boat all around the ocean, forcing him to abandon ship and coast along on an inflatable life raft, with a limited amount of food and water and a slim chance of getting rescued.
Lost is the second film from writer-director J.C. Chandor, who already tackled men fighting to survive while aboard a sinking ship— albeit a Wall Street investment firm during the initial stages of the financial crisis—in his 2011 debut, Margin Call. On the surface, this movie appears to be a stripped-down one-man show, the focus always on its lone star, who serves as a directionless, modern-day Jonah. But this tale of an old man and the sea brings a lot of rough-and-tumble suspense, both in its elaborate action sequences and in quiet moments when Redford must use his head in order to stay living for another day.
Some might see Lost as dull or boring; Redford basically does nothing but try to stay afloat for 100-odd minutes. Unlike Gravity, which gives its two leads plenty of backstory to make sure the audience is immediately on their side, Lost tells us nothing about Redford's character, not even his name. Apart from an opening scene in which he apologizes to loved ones via voice-over, the movie makes zero nods to his past. If anything, Redford's silent, solitary demeanor suggests someone who was lost even before he set sail. However, by keeping the protagonist's life speculative, Chandor makes the audience choose a backstory for him, boldly giving us the choice to root for this character or not. Of course, because it's Redford, viewers likely will do the former.
Redford brings a lot of iconic baggage to his performance. (For all we know, Redford could simply be playing himself in this.) Given that he has done his most memorable, career-defining work when he's paired up with another actor—either men (Newman, Hoffman) or women (Fonda, Streisand)—seeing the 77-year-old legend all by his stubborn, independent lonesome is more riveting than you might think. Watching him virtually getting the shit smacked out of him both physically and emotionally, but always regaining his composure afterward, may give audiences a newfound respect for the pretty boy.
But as grim and hopeless as things could possibly get in a movie called All Is Lost (of course, we won't reveal if our hero lives to sail another day or sinks to the bottom of the sea), the movie is essentially about perseverance: playing it smart, staying safe and not giving up until—well, see the title.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Found at sea, lost in time."