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updated: 10/24/2013 2:15 PM

Redford grasps the gravity of sea survival in 'All is Lost'

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  • In "All is Lost," Robert Redford plays a nameless sailor aboard a 39-foot-yacht, trapped at sea without communication, power or supplies.

      In "All is Lost," Robert Redford plays a nameless sailor aboard a 39-foot-yacht, trapped at sea without communication, power or supplies.

  • Video: "All is Lost" trailer

 
 

If "Life of Pi" qualifies as an epic account of survival at sea, J.C. Chandor's "All is Lost" more accurately resembles a simple chamber play with the same theme.

One character. One small space. Virtually no dialogue.

For an actor to shoulder this kind of challenge -- to make us empathize with his feelings and thoughts and to engage us without the crutch of language -- would be intimidating to the most talented performers.

Yet, Robert Redford, at 77, slips into his nameless character with transparent ease. For 107 minutes, we witness this man as he wordlessly works out his problems using nothing more than furrowed brows and hope-filled eyes to keep us connected to him.

"All is Lost" luxuriates in the art of silent cinema: movements and expressions accompanied only by superbly mixed sound effects and Alex Ebert's minimalistic score that doesn't intrude on the drama until the very end.

We know nothing about Redford's lone character in this stripped-down, elemental motion picture, and we don't need to.

Where does he come from? How did he wind up on a 39-foot yacht named the Virginia Jean in the middle of the Indian Ocean all by himself?

None of that matters in Chandor's risky, meticulously constructed man-vs.-nature survival drama.

All we need to know occurs in the first minutes of our viewing: A man wakes up in his boat to find it filling with water, the result of a collision with a floating storage unit resembling a railroad boxcar.

The water invades his craft in quick, staggered gushes through a relatively small hole in the hull.

We can see the growing concern in the man's weathered face. He moves with deliberate speed to patch the hole and keep his vessel afloat.

Then, a terrible discovery.

His radio, his only contact with civilization, has been shorted out by the sea.

The man attempts to make repairs on the communications, then the engines operating the craft.

We see in his eyes the slowly building awareness of the seriousness of his situation. His initial irritation translates into something more serious.

With his food exhausted, his fresh water contaminated, his options narrowed and his diligence thwarted, the man shouts the queen mother of swear words and what we hear doesn't sound obscene at all, only defeated. And desperate.

Consider "All is Lost" the terrestrial version of "Gravity" with a gender switch.

Instead of renegade satellite debris and freezing temperatures, Redford's sailor faces a series of more earthly dangers, among them hungry sharks, the wrath of Mother Nature and his own building panic threatening to overcome his senses and intellect.

"All is Lost" does not move at a brisk clip, or a tedious drag. Chandor knows exactly the proper speed of each scene and carries it out with Pete Beaudreau's editing in appropriate sync.

This movie might be a surprise coming from Chandor, given that his first film, "Margin Call," relied on heavy verbal firepower in a fast-moving drama played out in a financial firm during the early stages of the 2008 financial meltdown.

My one big complaint with "All is Lost" would be its too conventional beginning. The story starts with Redford in a voice-over, narrating the feelings he will have near the movie's ending.

I understand why the filmmakers did this, believing that they must have Redford's voice connecting with audiences before this mostly silent movie begins, otherwise they will be put off.

No. The braver, more powerful beginning would have been for us to first see Redford's sailor waking up to water in the boat, trying to patch the hole, and, you know, yachta, yachta, yachta.

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