The structure and execution of All Is Lost—the second big-name movie this year to pit a solitary human against all that the natural world can conjure—seem, at first glance, to be a thematic cousin of Hemingway: The Marquee Star and the Sea. As it turns out, All Is Lost hews much more closely to the spare terrors of Jack London’s To Build a Fire. Alone against vast and uncaring elements, the story is simple: survive or don’t.
Whether Robert Redford’s nameless protagonist survives is, in the end, beside the point. The movie is a portrait of the struggle, and with the exception of a farewell message over the opening moments apologizing to persons unknown, and a few wrenching expletives in moments of defeat, it’s a struggle made in silence: Even the score is often subsumed by the increasingly horrific sounds of water and breath. Soon enough, his boat and all its symbols of comfort vanish, leaving us with silence, unbroken horizons and shots of teeming life from below the green water as ever-present reminders of his frailty. (And, as one disaster turns into another, they provide a catalog of reasons never to seek the open sea on one’s own.)
It takes an actor of Redford’s confidence and naturalism to hold the screen as well as he does through this cinematic meditation; his resolute profile seems at times to become a weapon against the weather itself. And though the pace occasionally stretches thin, Redford makes sure your attention never wavers. In the end, perhaps inevitably, things in All Is Lost can drift a little, but as a whole, the film is as dedicated, restrained and exacting as its star.