What floats your boat?
Do you like your movies with dialogue, multiple characters, complex story lines — you know, stuff? Or can a film without the benefit of such things fill your sails?
J.C. Chandor's second film, "All Is Lost," starring Robert Redford, is typically characterized by what it isn't. There's little in the way of backstory. There's only one character. And he generally doesn't talk.
There is a man at sea, an old man. And that is about it. Hemingway's tale is a garish soap opera by comparison.
We know little about our unnamed man (Redford). We're informed that he's located 1700 nautical miles from Indonesia's Sumatra Straits. In the opening, he reads in voice over a letter in which he, down to only half a day's ration, pens a farewell and an apology for some unspecified failing in his now decidedly precarious life. "I tried," he says. "I think you will all agree that I tried."
The film then properly begins eight days prior, when our man awakes to find that, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, a floating cargo ship container has lodged itself in the hull of his 39-foot yacht. It leaves a gaping hole that, aside from threatening to sink him, has destroyed all the ship's radios and electronics.
The film proceeds to depict, in rigorous detail, his step-by-step attempts to fix the hole, weather a hellacious storm and, quite basically, survive. The will to survive has been a subject of countless films, but it has here been stripped to the barest of existential essentials: A man might die and his is how he, one small solution at a time, tries not to.
Every ingenuity — gluing over the hole, fashioning a hand pump — is met by another cruel twist of fate. He frustratingly grunts as he wrestles around the small confines of his boat as his situation steadily worsens, forcing constant reappraisal and reluctant but necessary acceptance.
The story's minimalism is contrasted by the maximum presence of its star. Redford has always been an actor capable of doing a lot with few and slight gestures, which makes "All Is Lost" a beautiful and noble capstone. Here is, at 77, one of the most charismatic performers in movie history working with both hands tied behind his back. An everyman, to the last.
Chandor's first film, the super talky "Margin Call," was in many ways an opposite. But "All Is Lost" also connects to that boardroom story of the financial meltdown. Our man is helplessly shipwrecked by the debris of a global economy. Several cargo ships, too, pass him as he frantically waves for help — an unnoticed spec in an ocean filled with far bigger corporate fish. (When a Maersk ship passes, one wants to squint for Tom Hanks, whose "Captain Phillips" would make a fitting double feature.)
So is there enough here? Chandor has slimmed down the story so much that one hungers for a few more layers. But if "All Is Lost" can feel underwhelming, it also resonates upon reflection. The movie's unadorned, unsentimental imagery lodges within as a stark symbol of striving.
The feeling of doom, whether personal or planetary, is today pervasive. But "All Is Lost," in the end, is a stirring, repudiation of its own title.
"All Is Lost," a Lionsgate release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "brief strong language." Running time: 107 minutes. Three stars out of four.
MPAA definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.