“All Is Lost” is the most bare-bones movie to come along in years. Two hours of Robert Redford on a boat on the Indian Ocean, and the boat’s sinking — that’s it, no other characters, no other story lines, hardly any dialogue. It sounds like a recipe for inspirational bromides on one hand or sheer boredom on the other. Instead the movie’s a nearly perfect thing: Economic, elegant, and elemental, it’s a cleanly observed tale of one man coping with incremental disaster and trying, decision by decision, action by action, to keep the odds going in his favor. You can supply your own allegory here if you want, but it’s not necessary. “All Is Lost” works quite brilliantly on its most basic narrative level.
It screens Thursday night at the Coolidge and opens elsewhere Friday.
The movie starts the way trouble tends to, before you realize what’s hit you — or, as in this case, what you’ve hit. A well-to-do man (Redford) wakes up in the bunk of his pleasure craft to find water lapping against his chin. While sailing solo across the ocean, he has collided with a cargo container floating on its own in the middle of nowhere. Sneakers pour out from a hole in its side. The oceans pour in from a hole in his hull.
The hole is just above the shelves holding the ship’s radio and his laptop, so communication with the wider world is moot. Oh, and the engine is swamped. The man’s an experienced sailor and slow to panic, though, and the initial scenes of “All Is Lost” derive their curiosity and interest from watching resourcefulness at work. Here’s how you mix up a batch of fiberglass, rig up a bosun’s chair, and hang over the side to make repairs. Here’s how you fashion the handle for a manual bilge pump. Here’s how you keep a weather eye out for storms, because of course there will be a storm.
There is, and it’s a horror show experienced primarily from the man’s point of view, with few poetic “God” shots emphasizing the smallness of the boat in an endless sea. Besides, there’s too much to do. The drama in these scenes is immediate and frightening, and if you’ve ever wondered what it feels like to be in a yacht rolling over through 360 degrees of heavy weather or to be dragged underwater in your own wake, “All Is Lost” will make you grateful you’re on dry land.
There are further mishaps, large and small, and the man’s options narrow in steady progression. Still, he sticks to the jobs at hand. Someone on land — a wife? a business partner? — has gifted him with a high-end sextant, and he busies himself with a book on celestial navigation. There may be shipping lanes within reach. All the man has to do is be seen.
If there’s an underlying message to “All Is Lost” — and I’m not saying there is — it’s that we are not seen, by and large. That our journeys are our own and that we’d better be good at bailing, navigating, maybe a little electrical work. And that while we spend our journeys convinced we’re invincible — working like hell at it, actually — there comes a moment when we have to face the fact that the jig is almost certainly up. What we do then is our own business and in accordance with our own nature. The movie is a Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook that ever so subtly backs into Zen.
“All Is Lost” represents two distinct triumphs. For director J.C. Chandor, whose 2009 debut, “Margin Call,” was a Wall Street movie with unexpected smarts, the new film confirms a major talent, all the more so for announcing itself in a minor key. He could have gone so many ways here, painting the beauty of sea and sky with digital lyricism, a la “Life of Pi,” filling us in on the hero’s back story, in the style of “Gravity,” or stirring us with themes of man’s life-force and need for company, on the order of “Cast Away.” There’s no Wilson here, though, and little romanticism of any sort. Peter Zuccarini's cinematography is functional first and nice to look at second, and Alex Ebert’s score — a stunning accomplishment only in retrospect — at times could be mistaken for wind sighing in the rigging.
For those of us who’ve been around long enough, “All Is Lost” is also a reminder of what Robert Redford can bring to a movie when he’s not worrying about the fate of the world. The star is nearing 80 now, and the Olympian handsomeness he used to wear as both blessing and burden has become craggy: He’s a gorgeous wreck and still not much given to onscreen self-examination. His character here isn’t introspective either. Whoever he is — the credits call him “Our Man,” but only because “The Man” would sound too tritely symbolic — he’s rich enough to own a yacht and take time off to cross an ocean. In the film’s opening voice-over, he composes a farewell note, just in case, and apologizes to the people he has screwed over. A master of the universe, then, except the universe is 39 feet long and shrinking fast.
One requirement I ask of the reader: If you see “All Is Lost,” please do so in a movie theater. Chandor has made a film that rewards the big-screen viewer with a sense of immersion, contemplation, and granular detail, all of which would go over the rails in the distractions of the home-viewing environment. Simply put, if Our Man doesn’t have an iPhone at hand, neither should you. More to the point, we should feel powerfully alone together with him, from the start of this amazing journey all the way to its haunting, beautifully ambiguous end.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.