A waterlogged vessel bobs up and down in the calm ocean waves, damaged beyond repair. Sunlight skips over the horizon. The quiet is momentarily interrupted by a man's withered voice reciting a poetic confession to estranged family members thousands of miles away. His sobering words, along with the camera, drift with the current as if they were just another piece of the wreckage floating toward some unknown destination.
J.C. Chandor's All is Lost is the cinematic equivalent of a last will and testament. It opens with this unnamed Man (Robert Redford) and his boat nearly submerged, then flashes back to track the fated circumstances that brought the situation to such a sublime moment of reflection. Like the hauntingly frank opening sequence, much of the film is beautifully barebones, restricted to only the images and actions of a single soul attempting to fend off the inevitable.
After his sailboat suffers an initial puncture from an errant shipping container 1,700 miles from the Sumatra Straits, every one of the Man's decisions is put under the camera's microscope, documented in gripping detail to protract the conflict of an isolated character. Moments that most nautical films would gloss over take on extreme depth. An early extended sequence in which the Man must repair the breach through some inventive patchwork is riveting, as a series of problem-solving tactics is suddenly put into action.
Much of All is Lost—which opens Friday, Oct. 25—is equally enthralling. The Man grapples with one disaster after another (technology failure, extreme weather, bad luck), and each dramatic instance becomes a sort of micro-narrative, building on the momentum of its predecessors. Without the benefit of dialogue (the film is almost entirely wordless), the Man's desperate exploits to survive form a platform for communicating tension.
One of the most distressing scenes comes late in the film, when the Man is thrust overboard, clinging only to a rope connected to the boat. Chandor's limber camera follows him under the surface of the water, taking his character's perspective and looking up at the boat's hull. It's a visual motif that will eventually take on more poetic license after the Man must evacuate for a smaller life raft.
In a season of stirring survival movies (Gravity, Captain Phillips), All is Lost realizes the genre in its purest form. There's an epic grandeur to its widescreen depiction of loneliness. Dialogue is moot, with the dramatic impact falling entirely on Redford's facial expressions and body movements. It's hard to imagine a more method performance, and this actor's withered face holds all the pain of a man coming to terms with his own potential demise.
Aside from having the creative courage to craft a one-man drama set in the middle of the ocean, Chandor's more resonant accomplishment is thematic in nature. After exhaustion takes hold (for both the Man and the audience), All is Lost slows to an almost pre-ordained and resolute crawl.
Here, the film sometimes cuts below the surface of the ocean in a kind of reverse bird's-eye view (call it fish's-eye view) to frame the Man's floating raft with the glare of the distant sun or the glimmer of the moon. Marine life, most menacingly pods of sharks, circle underneath, creating a multidimensional composition, an elemental holy trinity emanating from the sea, rising past the Earth into the heavens above.
Solace, it seems, is the great equalizer in All is Lost. With no one to share epiphanies, regrets or heartaches, hope becomes an unspoken relationship between man and his environment. In one glorious frame, the Man basks in sunlight, only to see torrential downpour a few hundred feet away: light and dark living side-by-side. It's a quiet and enthralling reminder that each moment, no matter how small, contains the potential for living and dying.