‘All Is Lost’ movie review: Robert Redford and the sea in J.C. Chandor’s survival tale

Writer-director J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost works on a number of levels, but the most meaningful one may be how it relates specifically to star Robert Redford. This story about a man lost at sea, coming to terms with his own impending mortality, is really all about Redford – one of our most beloved cinematic icons – coming to terms with the end of his cinematic career. 

Or maybe it’s us doing the coming to terms. During the film’s only (at length) spoken passage – a brief narrated letter that opens the film and is repeated later on – Redford’s character says that he’s sorry, and that he tried to do the right thing. We presume (especially at the start) that the character is writing to his family, to his children, but it’s really the actor directly addressing the audience. 

This is also Gravity at sea, featuring one man, a boat, and a fight for survival. A single actor, a single setting, no dialogue; most audiences would be turned away by the concept (and they have: All Is Lost has just barely cracked $5 million at the US box offices). 

Their loss: this is one of the most thrilling movies of the year, an edge-of-your seat tale of survival that details in painstaking procedural fashion how things go wrong during a solo voyage in the Indian Ocean, and the steps our hero takes to try to make things right. The entire film is spent watching Redford’s character do this and do that – repair his boat, attempt to navigate a storm – with zero external commentary; and somehow, you can’t take your eyes off the screen. 

It’s a testament to Chandor’s writing and direction that we become as involved in All Is Lost as we do: with no way to verbally explain anything to the audience, he has to make sure that we’re able to understand everything that is going on purely through the visuals. And for the most part, we do: the visual language of the film is nothing less than extraordinary. Chandor previously directed the underseen (but excellent) Wall Street thriller Margin Call, but his confident work here is a revelation.  

The film opens as Redford wakes up to water gushing into his yacht, which has struck a floating shipping container in the middle of the ocean. A sizable hole has been left in the side of the boat, and his communications equipment has been damaged. He works to repair the damage to his ship, but his ordeal has only just begun, with dark clouds on the horizon.  

One of the film’s greatest strengths is its sparseness: we know almost nothing about the lead character, who is only credited as “Our Man”. His reasons for making the solo journey in the Indian Ocean, his seafaring experience, his family, his name – nothing. This allows the film to work on allegorical levels, and not just as mankind’s struggle for survival: while we have no background information about the character, we know plenty about Redford the actor, and subconsciously bring this into the film. 

Redford, of course, carries the movie, and it’s easily the best performance I’ve seen this year, effortlessly moving from rugged determination to hopelessness to acceptance. I would call an Oscar win (Redford’s first for acting) or at least a nomination (his first since 1974’s The Sting), but the unusual concept and presentation – the lack of any dialogue – may turn voters off. I was shocked to see Redford omitted from the just-announced SAG nominations

Original music by Alexander Ebert is exceptional; the closing credit song, the haunting, beautiful Amen – which sends shivers down my spine – should easily secure a Best Original Song Oscar nom. Cinematography by Frank G. DeMarco and Peter Zuccarini perfectly captures the desolate setting; effects work is mostly flawless, though there’s the occasional obvious greenscreen shot or CGI wave.

Both a nail-biting tale of survival and heartened allegory with a pitch-perfect ending, All Is Lost is one of the best films of the year. It may not be as cinematically dazzling as Gravity – which it shares a lot of similarities with – but it’s just as inventive and risky in its own ways, and just as satisfying an experience. Like that film, this one needs to be seen in the cinema for full effect.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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