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Dire Straits

fialmRedford powers through solo screen voyage in 'All Is Lost'

Actors don't get much more iconic than Robert Redford. A Hollywood superstar since the 1970s, he founded the Sundance Film Festival, Institute, and cable TV channel in support of emerging filmmakers, and has been a tireless activist for the environment. His one-man seagoing thriller, All Is Lost, is a gift to fans who want to see Redford in action. But it also feels like a gift from a grateful industry to Redford, a harrowing physical workout of a film that shows off what his 77-year-old body is capable of, while proving that Redford can still command the screen for 100 minutes all by himself.

The movie is written and directed by J. C. Chandor (Margin Call)—although "written" is a relative term in a film that is almost completely without dialogue, except for a few sparse sentences spoken at the very beginning. There is a definite narrative shape to the story, however, and a strong emotional arc that Redford's character undergoes. Like Gravity, it begins at what seems to be an ending: a lone sailor finds his craft and equipment disabled hundreds of miles from anywhere out in the middle of the ocean. It's a slightly less enthralling, more claustrophobic experience than Gravity, but All Is Lost is similarly intense in exploring the outer limits of human tenacity.

Seventeen-hundred nautical miles from the Sumatra Straits in the Indian Ocean, an unnamed sailor wakes up to find his 39-foot yacht taking on water. We have no idea why this obvious Yank of a sailor (his boat is called the Virginia Jean) is out here alone, and we never find out. All we know is that water is suddenly rushing in through a window over his desk into the cabin below, flooding his computer and radio equipment.

Going above, he finds that a massive cargo container abandoned to the sea by some passing freighter has stove a hole in the side of his hull. Detaching the container from his boat is the first order of business, then painstakingly tarring strips of canvas to cover and mend the breach, and jerry-rigging a new handle to pump water out of the cabin. Unfortunately for him, that's just the beginning of his trials. Without radio contact, he manages to keep his boat in trim and sails for the distant straits, where he might hail a passing freighter—until the Virginia Jean strays into the teeth of a massive storm at sea.

This is a literally breathtaking sequence, not recommended for anyone with a fear of tight spaces, or water. The sailor's natural human impulse to ride out the storm below, in the relatively dry and sealed cabin, wars with the necessity to keep crawling up on deck into the blow to keep the hatches battened down and the boat upright. Debris flies, yards and masts are ripped apart, and the cabin interior rolls over and over like that rotating dreamscape apartment in Inception. In one scary shot, the sailor, struggling to brace himself, peers through the glass hatch cover leading to the deck and sees only the briny deep below.

To avoid spoilers, any further discussion of the plot should end here. Suffice it to say that further tribulations involve dwindling food and water supplies, attempts to navigate via map and sextant, an inflatable life raft, and sharks. (When the sailor finally does spot a distant commercial freighter branded "Maersk Line," viewers can be forgiven for thinking they've wandered into the sequel to Captain Phillips.) It should also be noted that Dramamine may be required for some scenes, particularly early on, on that rocking boat, although Chandor tends to stay so up close and personal with Redford, there aren't that many queasy-inducing long shots.

What really matters here is how deeply Redford resonates with the audience as a gritty Everyman who refuses to give up. Kudos are due to Redford in this physically and emotionally exhausting turn for keeping viewers involved—as the sailor keeps his wits together— through sheer strength of will. The filmmaking drifts here or there, but Redford powers the story through to what can be seen as either a completely straightforward or poetically ambiguous ending, depending on one's half-full/half-empty viewpoint. 

ALL IS LOST ★ ★ ★ (out of four) With Robert Redford. Written and directed by J. C. Chandor. A Lionsgate release. Rated PG-13. 107 minutes.

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