All Is Lost
If nothing else, All Is Lost is a study in watching a man simply think. You can tell that Our Man is working things out, seeking solutions, considering his next move. But he's also contemplating his dire circumstances—and his possible demise.
Many reviews are comparing All Is Lost to The Old Man and the Sea, and there's some merit to that. But Hemingway's story—both the book and the 1958 film starring Spencer Tracy—is driven by dialogue, inner and outer, so we always know what the Old Man is thinking. He frequently speaks aloud, and when he doesn't, Hemingway shares the man's thoughts with the reader. (In the film, Tracy narrates his thoughts in voiceover.)
In All Is Lost, it's just the old man and the sea, and we've pretty much got to figure out what he's thinking for ourselves. But Redford makes that exercise gratifying, in one scene after another. In one particularly poignant moment, Our Man stands chest deep in water in his cabin, and he looks into the mirror. Pondering his fate? Looking into the face of inevitable death? No. He contemplates his reflection and then . . . begins to shave. The captain preparing to go down with his ship? Perhaps. But he wants to look good doing it.
It's one of those moments where, as a viewer, you can only watch and appreciate. You forget Redford is acting, and you just see a man fighting for his life. But then, as you exit the theater, you remember that Redford has never won an Oscar for acting (he won Best Director for 1981's Ordinary People). And you think, This is his time. One of the most respected men in the business, Redford did win an honorary Oscar in 2002, essentially a lifetime achievement award. But in All Is Lost, this is the achievement of a lifetime.
It's also worth noting the work of writer-director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call), who brilliantly pulls off several feats with All Is Lost: the entire movie takes place on water; there's only one character; there's almost zero dialogue. (Movie scripts are often 120 pages or more; this one was 30.)
Well, to be honest: while Redford only utters two words on screen, it's not exactly true that those are all the words he says in the entire film. As the movie opens on a still blank screen, before we see Our Man or his boat, we hear Redford in a very brief voiceover, setting the scene. Here's a portion of that opening monologue:
"I'm sorry," he says. "I know that means little at this point, but I am. I tried, I think you all would agree that I tried. To be true, to be strong, to be kind, to love, to be right. But I wasn't . . . All is lost here . . . except for soul and body . . . that is, what's left of them.
"It's inexcusable, really, I know that now. How it could have taken this long to admit that, I'm not sure. But it did. I know it now, and I'm sorry. I did not want to go, I still don't, I fought till the end, I'm not sure what that is worth, but know that I did. . . .