There are many instances where a singular, towering performance carries a movie. In All is Lost, writer-director J.C. Chandor’s (Margin Call) gripping sophomore effort about an old man and the sea, a singular, towering performance is the movie. Not that I’m trying to sell short Chandor’s rigorously minimalist direction, Alex Ebert’s astutely moody score, and cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco’s striking lensing, as these parts definitely contribute significantly to the impressive whole.

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But with a story that boasts just a single character, who – besides for a portentous opening voiceover – only has approximately three very brief lines of dialogue, the realization of that character is a make or break task. A task which, I’m happy to report, veteran actor Robert Redford is decidedly up to.

Chandor’s spartan script finds Redford as a nameless mariner (the credits only lists him as “Our Man”) on a solo yachting trip, 1700 miles from the nearest coast in the Indian Ocean. The film’s cold open sees Our Man waking up in his below deck cabin to the sound and sight of sloshing water around him. A shipping container, supposedly fallen off a freighter, has drifted into the side of his yacht, the Virginia Lee, punching a hole in the hull and damaging his navigational and communication equipment. Our Man attempts to repair the damage, but before he can do so effectively, a violent storm is upon him, its weathery rage tossing his now even further damaged yacht adrift, vastly off-course.

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And thus begins a tale of brave survival, of human endurance, of facing your regrets, and of recognizing your own mortality. And, impressively, this is all achieved with nary a word. With a masterful economy of emotion, Redford gets us invested in the fate of this man, as he faces a constantly escalating series of crises. Redford – who is still surprisingly sprightly for his 77 years of age, as he scampers up masts and across the deck, doing most of his own stunts – boasts a magnetic energy which holds your attention in a white-knuckled grip, as he squares off against the calamities of nature with just his wits and some meagre supplies.

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This is about as “pure cinema” as you can get, as Chandor directs with a purposefully measured pace, allowing things to play out and build up realistically, instead of using forced histrionics to manufacture drama just for sake of sating short attention spans, and in so doing clears the stage of distractions, allowing Redford to fully work his magic.

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One trick on display is that despite the fact that we know nothing about his character, through merely a simple inflection of regret as he opens an engraved box or the naked misery in his eyes as he stares at his yacht’s name, etc., we get diaphanous hints at just what type of man he is, and why he is out here all alone. Redford’s magnificently understated performance allows us, the viewer, to fill in these gaps in his history in the most cursory of strokes, but in so doing, also gets us personally involved in his fate.

A fate – due to the fatalistic tone of proceedings – which is never quite certain as you watch events unfold. It is this constant uncertainty, combined with Chandor never overreaching with his scripted obstacles, that creates the film’s natural tension.

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All is Lost was released internationally at about the same time as the Oscar winning Gravity, itself a tense survival film that also relies on a singular performance. But whereas Gravity uses the widescreen spectacle of exploding space stations and the like to shorten your lifespan, All is Lost strives for more intimate and understated terror – like where your next drink of water is coming from.

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For some, this smallest of scopes may be a bit off putting, especially when certain early parts of the film feel a bit redundant in establishing Our Man’s plight. Those who expect the ever present punctuation of explosions in a movie, will probably even find this a bit boring. But if you’re in the mind for a “less is more” tale that realistically captures the solitary anxiety of survival, and does so on the shoulders of an expertly nuanced performance by a true screen legend, then you may just want to give All is Lost a look.

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Last Updated: April 10, 2014

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Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions - but very little sleep - I've been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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