All is won, cinematically, in All Is Lost. That includes a bet-your-shirt, or even bet-your-house, Best Actor Oscar for Robert Redford. This mesmerising tale of one man and a boat was written and directed by JC Chandor, whose only prior picture was the financial meltdown drama Margin Call. That gave no clue, beyond proficient film skills and a power to kindle fresh fire from stars we thought nearing burnout (Demi Moore, Jeremy Irons), of the humdinger to come.
Here the star rescued from supernova status is Redford, giving a performance that defies known Redfordology. Aren’t we used to him – weren’t we used to him – as the actor who doesn’t act? Who does gorgeous minimalism over and over? Who crinkles that grin and dimples those Ivy League jowlets? Whose entire life is a Good Hair Day? Who founded, yes, the Sundance Film Festival but who played – no, no and thrice no to that performance – the lovestruck Brit Denys Finch Hatton in Out of Africa without the merest try at an English accent. (While poor, plucky Meryl Streep nearly herniated herself with Danish-speak … )
Redford pulls everything out here and pulls everything off. The minor news is that the 76-year-old did his own action stuff in a non-stop-physical movie. The major news is that he makes us believe everything and care about it. This, in a story with no backstory: about a sea voyage with no set-up or prologue. Just a holed yacht in the Indian Ocean; an old-ish man with no name; and burning sun and tropic storms taking turns to break his boat and his resistance.
Barely a word is spoken. Who is there to chat to? But emotions are scripted in volumes. Redford is sloshed with waves, banged by boat parts attached or awol, shoved underwater, converged on by sharks … Somehow he micro-manages his acting in the true Redford way, with no false nuance and a magical exactitude of naturalistic reflex. Near the close there is a primal cry of despair Olivier might envy. (Only one detail in the character and his predicament invites a “Reality check!” shout. Redford has a hat on board but wears it just once, for three seconds. A lone yachtsman exposed to murderous rays in the southern seas would cover up, wouldn’t he? Unless he has legendary locks to showcase.)
The tougher weather scenes required a studio tank – you can’t do hurricane-force sea storms at sea – but these too are believable and electrifying. Expect an Oscar for cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco. (Expect another for sound designer Steve Boeddekker, unsparing with the amplified flap, roar, hiss, crackle of the elements.) Chandor sustains the suspense, builds the adversities, erects the floating gallows ironies. Who says a close-passing container ship will notice a small sea craft with one screaming, waving occupant? There was never a good movie made of canonic literature’s lone-man-versus-ocean masterwork, The Old Man and the Sea. Now there doesn’t need to be. Chandor’s movie gives us the Hemingwayish essentials and then some.