City Paper grade: A
J.C. Chandor’s 2011 debut, Margin Call, took an incisive look at the moral bankruptcy of the banking industry, but was hobbled by its tendency to sit back while actors chewed on page after page of expository dialogue. That makes his follow-up all the more surprising: Aside from a brief opening narration, a few desperate cries for help and a single explosive expletive, Robert Redford remains resolutely silent throughout All Is Lost. It’s a bold decision that even the year’s other movie-star-alone-in-a-hostile-environment film didn’t brave; for all its talk of space’s silence and isolation, Gravity is almost nonstop chatter, with a mawkish Sandra Bullock monologue and a ham-fisted score to boot.
Chandor is confident enough to avoid those missteps. Casting Redford in the lead (well, only) role undoubtedly gave him a boost, as the 77-year-old actor creates a character out of pure action. Even in his farewell letter, which strikes a tone of vague apology, we learn nothing of his background or his past; we have no idea why he’s on a boat in the middle of nowhere alone, how long he’s been there or what his plans may be. We don’t even know his name. The credits list him only as “Our Man,” which touches on his role as an audience surrogate as everything goes wrong but is also a nod to Redford’s status in the cinematic consciousness. That history, combined with Redford’s tanned good looks, goes a long way towards establishing a personal backstory for his character: a youth of brash cockiness, a lifelong outdoorsman of means, a success built with regrets, as we’ve learned from that letter to an unknown recipient.
This is not a film of contrivances. Redford’s character never panics or makes huge mistakes; he is simply overwhelmed by the indifference of nature. Chandor captures this struggle with an austere classicism, finishing the film with an ending as decisive or ambiguous as the viewer desires. This is, after all, not a film about one man’s fate, but about his learning to face it.
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