ALL IS LOST-- 4 STARS
Screen presence is a characteristic often discussed when actors are compared to each other. We gauge which stars can command our absolute attention just by using a look, a smile, or a spoken word. We separate them from the character actors that prefer to be chameleons blending into any role or scene.
The predominant way an actor gets our attention is what sets them apart. Some grab us with their words like Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood. Others capture us with their charisma like Jack Nicholson and Tom Hanks. The third group with screen presence are the pretty faces. This is where you find the "it" girls and studly studs that get by on a wink and smile. This where you find Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, and, for most of his career, Robert Redford, the star of the new film All Is Lost, which just opened in limited release this weekend at four Chicago theaters.
Redford's smile has broken millions of hearts for over 50 years. His resume is filled with dashing lead roles that use his charisma to its fullest extent. Too often, though, he gets pigeon-holed as an actor who just gets by on his looks. As Redford has aged, his looks may have weathered, but his talent has not. While he's not the headliner he used to be, anyone who's paid attention in the last fifteen years has slowly seen that there's real chops behind that glowing smile. The thing is this. The really special actors can attain screen presence in all three of the aforementioned ways. The all-time greats have the words, the charisma, and the looks. Look no further than Cary Grant. Any argument that Redford isn't among those Hollywood greats gets answered, at least to this critic, with All Is Lost. Commanding the screen without his smile and very few words, Redford gives an acting clinic on screen presence in this exhilarating and striking survival drama.
The 77-year-old Academy Award winner is the only character in the film and plays a nameless yachtsman at sea in the Indian Ocean. With no cuddly back story and only a single voiceover of a written letter, Redford is alone in this environment. We meet him eight days before that letter one morning when an errant cargo container has struck his 39-foot Virginia Jean, leaving a substantial gash just above the waterline on the starboard side. While the accident isn't immediately catastrophic, the natural lean of the yacht to that side while sailing will fill the boat with water, therefore limiting its movement. The gash has also damaged most of the boat's electrical system, including the radio, laptop, and bilge pump. Redford's man springs into action to prepare for the worst, especially against the tumultuous ocean against him. His hope is to reach to Sumatra shipping lanes where passing cargo vessels might cross his path for rescue.
All Is Lost is just J.C. Chandor's second feature film. He was an Oscar nominee on his first try with his screenplay for 2011's talkative Wall Street ensemble thriller Margin Call, a film that couldn't be more opposite to this. He propositioned Redford into this film when the two met at Redford's Sundance Film Festival where Margin Call premiered. Shot at the Baja California tank where Titanic was filmed and employing dazzling camera work both above and below water, the movie has a raw, visceral, and close-quarters feel that serves it well. The tension level is utterly gripping and rarely comes up
For 100 minutes, writer and director J.C. Chandor puts the senior citizen through the relentless wringer and, boy, does that man take it. Storms, swells, sharks, dwindling supplies, and fading hope add up as the risk to our man continuously increases. Redford grabs every situation with steely resolve and stretches every limit. This an astounding performance that might just put Tom Hanks from Castaway to shame. Who needs a volleyball? There's a good chance those few purists disappointed by Gravity's superstar-flavored survival story will relish a raw and minimalistic one like All Is Lost. Even the unique elemental musical score from Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zero's frontman Alex Ebert knows when to shine and when to stay out of the way.
With nearly zero dialogue, it's action and reaction that steers our immersion into All Is Lost. With just a 31-page shooting script, Redford and Chandor allow nuance and initiative to tell the whole story. We don't know why his is alone. We don't know who is at home waiting for him, if anyone. We don't know where he's going in the first place. All of that supplemental detail is a complete mystery, even to Redford while making the film. All that is given for us to discern is the actor and the man defines that screen presence we've been talking about. None of this works without his poise to carry the film and go for it on every take. Lesser actors would buckle or be unconvincing, but we're working with a great one here.
LESSON #1: USING THE COMPLETE RANGE OF YOUR SKILLS IN A GIVEN ENVIRONMENT-- We quickly learn that Redford's sailor is no rookie. He is a skilled and experienced seaman who is prepared for the situations that may arise at sea. His resourcefulness and intuition serve him well. He demonstrates that even someone old and wise can work smarter and not harder. When left to his own devices, the man doesn't falter.
LESSON #2: PHYSICALLY SURVIVING THE ELEMENTS AT SEA AT AN ADVANCED AGE-- No matter how astutely our man works with his skills and resourcefulness, our sailor must still endure the physical elements of the violent and turbulent ocean in a survival situation. The exertion and exhaustion to keep going would take its toll on any man, let alone one pushing 80 years old. Soon, thirst, fatigue, and starvation creep into the picture increasing the physical challenges for Redford's character to survive. The easy joke to make would be calling this a cinematic analogy to Ernest Hemingway's famous The Old Man and the Sea. This is more sophisticated than that and far less poetic.
LESSON #3: FACING SURVIVAL AND DISASTER WITHOUT FEAR-- Between the skillful confidence of Lesson #1 and the physical drive of Lesson #2, the one trait and emotion that never arrives for our man is fear. This character faces challenges set before him without noticeable fear. He possess a drive to meet and conquer the next obstacle without breaking down. We get to some frustration at times, but we never get to a place where fear has defeated him. We never see a man weeping or pitying himself or his situation.