All is Lost is pure cinematic storytelling. In all of its 96 minute running time, there are only about 20-30 words that are actually spoken (many of those in narration), and it still manages to be one of the most powerful films released on 2014.
Following in the (much more heralded) path of the stranded-in-space film Gravity, All is Lost is essentially about one person's struggle against the overpowering force of nature. Robert Redford plays "our man" - a nameless hero whose small leisure boat is damaged when it randomly strikes a derelict shipping crate mysteriously floating in the middle of the ocean. Though the strike creates a hole in the side of his boat no larger than a basketball, it leads to a chain reaction of events that is both harrowing and heartbreaking. Much like Gravity, we are captivated by watching this man try anything and everything to conquer the elements and survive against the odds.
It's a shame that All is Lost didn't get the attention that it deserved. Writer/director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call) creates a film that is both visceral and smart. There isn't a wasted shot in All Is Lost. We aren't given any dialogue, music, or shots that don’t add to the experience of “our man”. Chandor clearly understands that film is a visual medium and as we watch "our man" descend deeper and deeper into danger, he allows us the space to ponder what it would actually be like to be in this his shoes. Make no mistake, "our man" is no dummy. Several times throughout the film, we watch as he conjures up tactics that are creative and ingenious - only to have those tactics fail and our/his hopes dashed. That's what makes the film so powerful. As an audience member, you'll spend half of the time mesmerized by the film's sequence of events and half of the time having your own internal dialogue about what you would do if faced with such a challenge.
Robert Redford's portrayal of "our man" is one of the legendary actor's best performances in his career and by far one of the best in recent years. His understanding of the material is top-notch. He gives us a character that is level-headed and not given to panic, but also shows us glimpses of genuine fear and frustration. Many times throughout the film it feels like he is smart enough to get himself out of this mess - with his combination of patience and intelligence - it almost seems like a foregone conclusion. But as his attempts to mend the situation fail again and again, his awareness of the situation also makes us begin to realize just how much trouble he is really in. We don't know anything about this man. His background, age, name, and even his boating experience are a complete mystery. Nevertheless, we are constantly rooting for him to make it out alive. As an actor, this must have been such a challenge - creating a believable character without truly ever knowing who that character is (or at least ever revealing that to the audience). But Redford pulls it out magnificently.
There really isn't much to criticize about All is Lost. Those of you who find yourselves checking your watches and tapping your feet at films this sparse of dialogue and action sequences will probably be bored. But those of you who treasure a good survival film should look no further. This is one of the best to come along in many years.