The title All Is Lost promises despair, especially with Robert Redford looking so stolid and weathered and still-got-it golden on the poster. Could this near-silent, you-are-there survival story be another of Redford's yawps of boomer gloom? Another complaint, like The Company You Keep, about the realization that the world we seemed to be building to in the late '60s turned out to be this one, compromised by money and cynicism, where the kids, if you can get their attention for even a moment, are all, "The Sundance Kid? What was his superpower?"
Sundance did have one, actually: holding the culture together through the Nixon crackup, mostly with rumpled handsomeness.
Fortunately, the intimate, somewhat terrifying All Is Lost is much better than that, partially because here Redford is asked only to hold himself together. (America will do fine on its own.) The result is something no Redford movie has been in the lifetime of many filmgoers: a genuine nail-biter, scrupulously made and fully involving, elemental in its simplicity. Redford stars with just a yacht, a lifeboat, a shipping crate, a million miles of pitiless ocean, and what might be the movies' most indefatigable hairpiece. Outside of a snatch of voiceover in the opening seconds, he speaks only four or so times the whole film. For once, he's not the suave master of everything around him — he's just a guy, trying not to die.
A fabulously wealthy and capable guy, of course. In the first moments, Redford's character — hereafter let's just call him Redford — awakens on his fancypants boat to discover that even the insulated rich sometimes take a hit from globalization — in this case, in the form of one of those one-size-fits-all shipping crates, a floating boxcar that has spilled off a trawler and cracked Redford's yacht. The rest of the film is him simply dealing with this problem. His radio is fried, the boat is sinking, the nearest shipping lanes are hundreds of miles away — and even if he could reach them, what are the odds that one of today's overpacked, understaffed cargo ships would even spot him? (International shipping: another thing that's lost its soul since the '60s!)
Director J.C. Chandor proves adept at process, the sort of thing Hollywood isn't much good at anymore. The whole of All Is Lost is just a person taking clear and meaningful action in a cramped, precarious space. In a way, it's an earthbound variation on Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity, with one inhospitable element swapped for another and desperate folks hauling every bit of strength and ingenuity out of themselves to survive.
Chandor shrewdly handles the complex cause-and-effect of maritime life: It's always clear what each rope Redford handles is attached to, and there's wonderful tension in moments when the star is clambering from bow to stern; those surfaces are slick, those waves unpredictable, that ocean sickeningly dark. As the water gushes in and the yacht lists at queasy angles, the simplest tasks become suspenseful, and the difficult ones — shimmying up the mast or fishing in shark-infested waters — are hold-your-breath stuff.
The film is, in one respect, more daring than Cuarón's: We're given only a few hints about this yachtman's precrisis life and certainly no traumatic backstory of the sort that Hollywood producers think makes characters easier to relate to. He has no George Clooney to buck him up, no volleyball to spill his guts to, no flashbacks to take a breather in. That's just fine. Redford, as always, commands the screen and is more moving the more his visage is laid into. He grows weatherbeaten, pinking with the sun, his lips chafing, his voice, the few times you hear it, dry as crumbling snakeskin. The will to survive is moving enough — here it is, stripped to its elements, and if you can't bring yourself to care about something that simple, the problem is you, not the movie.
Redford gets harrowed, but not quite as thoroughly as he might have. Because the film achieves its considerable suspense through painstaking verisimilitude, its boat and sea always behaving as boats and seas really do, it's somewhat disappointing that, when Redford's old-man character is dunked in storm, his improbable old-man hair isn't washed away; it's the one thing in the movie that doesn't feel credible. I won't suggest that the septuagenarian hunk's Kennedy-thick mop has been augmented — maybe he truly did hit the genetic lottery in every way possible. If that is his natural hair, God bless him, but wouldn't the film have been more powerful — and this man's plight even more desperate — if they had fitted Redford with a mortal's bald pate? You can't really claim all is lost when, nearing 80, you're still blessed with that.