All Is Lost opens, following a brief prologue, with an unnamed man in late middle age, asleep below the deck of his sailboat somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean, awakening to find that a wayward shipping container has torn a hole in the boat’s side. That’s only the first of a string of misfortunes to befall him over the course of the next eight days. Watching the film, one casts about for an interpretation that will make meaning out of its series of unfortunate events: is this a twenty-first-century take on the trials of Job? A survivalist procedural? (Like a Hemingway story, it’s told with almost no dialogue.) I found it to be most compelling as a star vehicle for Robert Redford, whose face has grown craggy and weathered with age but whose crystalline eyes are as piercing as ever. Standing at the bow of the yacht, gazing worriedly but somehow peacefully over the vastness of the ocean, his thick blonde hair ruffling in the wind, we’re reminded of his ability to command the screen with his very presence, and we’re struck by the poignant realization that this perfect star, this Hollywood dream, has become an old man before our very eyes. The power of All Is Lost lies in its ability to play on our almost instinctual desire for Redford, our nostalgia for him as the golden boy of 1970s Hollywood, and our reluctance to lose him.
Redford’s screen presence effectively powers the film, which would be considerably less remarkable with any less beloved an actor at its helm. Since his character is given no backstory, we feel as if we really are watching this happen to Redford himself, and his star power is such that we care about him instantly. Otherwise, it’s a slight but pleasantly terrifying little adventure movie, one that touches off a whole host of common fears (water, heights, starvation, vast spaces, sharks) while remaining blessedly serene, unfussy, and direct. Its premise recalls that of last year’s Life of Pi, but All Is Lost isn’t encumbered by that film’s dreamy mysticism, even if it does end with what could be only be described as a miracle. Tautly directed by J. C. Chandor, it’s a tribute to masculine stoicism and resourcefulness, and it’s governed by a lean, masculine aesthetic. See it with your dad—and don’t be surprised if you both come out a little bit in love with the star at its center.