After J.C. Chandor's talky financial world drama Margin Call, for which his screenplay earned an Oscar nomination, one would have been excused for thinking that was the course his career would continue to take. He'd be another of many filmmakers who are perhaps better writers than purveyors of visual artistry, and it wouldn't be surprising to see him helm an HBO political film or something as his sophomore effort. But for his sophomore effort, the rigorous high-seas survival thriller All Is Lost, Chandor shows he's a true cinematic chameleon in every sense of the word, right up there with the unpredictable Danny Boyle. And in the process helps the great Robert Redford deliver one of the finest performances of his storied career.
Burning with a young man's vigor and stripped bare of every ounce of celebrity, Redford commands the screen and drags us into the watery ordeal with him, leaving us adrift in the midst of his unnamed character's existential crisis. Other than a few words of dialogue, read from a poignant note he's writing in the very beginning, we learn very little about Redford's character. We see a wedding band on his finger, but that's about all we can surmise. He could be anyone; a regular guy who we know has deep regrets about some mistake from his past, and at the pit of an obvious despair makes one final desperate attempt to address those wrongs.
We're then thrust eight days into the past, when a random shipping container carrying loads of sneakers has collided with his boat, a recreational vessel he clearly uses as an escape from the rest of the world. As such, he's all alone as the decks begin to take on water at a rapid clip. Initially it's unclear just how much nautical experience he has, but over time we come to realize he's a smart, intuitive jack-of-all-trades. Whether that's enough to survive what quickly escalates into a very real life-or-death situation is another story altogether.
But don't get it into your head that this is just another film where one man overcomes the odds and battles Mother Nature in a true triumph of the human spirit. There are elements of that, sure, but mainly this is a concise, rather simple story about loneliness and the fear of dying. All Is Lost makes for a perfect companion piece to Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity in that way, and covers much of the same emotional territory just as effectively. The visceral sense of helplessness and yes, even weightlessness, are evoked brilliantly by Chandor as Redford's character is frequently thrown about the ship's cabin, tossing and turning in unfathomable angles at the full mercy of the ocean's wrath, all while trapped in its vast emptiness. Chandor's ability to capture the overwhelming power and terror of the seas is something to behold, adding an incredible sense of urgency behind every moment.
That immediacy is needed because much of what Redford's character actually does can be considered mundane. Attempting to fix the ship's communications; patching up the hole in the hull; and gathering his most precious items aren't exactly exciting, but they reveal a man of great wisdom and preparedness. Redford projects these qualities effortlessly, both in look and demeanor, without need of uttering a word other than the occasional grunt and expletive. The physical demands increase as the story grows darker and more ominous, and Redford is more than up to the challenge. Chandor wisely refrains from giving in to typical thriller tropes, allowing the creaky sounds of buckling wood and crashing waves to ratchet up the tension to uncomfortable levels. Such a high level of realism is attained that it makes the few unbelievable occurrences stand out a little more, in particular a conclusion that doesn't quite gel with the tone Chandor had painstakingly established. Regardless, this is brilliant, evocative filmmaking that Chandor makes look extremely simple in execution, and one can only imagine what he'll do to try and top it.