And as a result of that concentration, you are more empathetic towards the character, and have a rooting interest in him. He’s resourceful and smart (“He was a good sailor,” Redford clarified, “but not a perfect sailor”), and because you’re paying such close attention, you see him thinking, working through solutions, making repairs, figuring it out. He’s got his books and his maps and his navigation equipment and he’s gonna solve this; we know absolutely nothing about the character’s background or what brought him there, but he seems to be the kind of successful man who is not used to coming up against something that he cannot overcome. But this may be that thing.
It’s interesting to see this kind of daring work from Redford, a Hollywood legend whose increased influence off-screen (as founder of the Sundance Film Festival and director of films like Quiz Show) has been almost precisely balanced with the declining challenges of his acting roles (in forgettable films like The Clearing, An Unfinished Life, and his own Lions for Lambs). But if the narrative of All Is Lost is an endurance test for “Our Man,” it’s equally one for the actor playing him — and Redford seems drawn to the challenge. These days, he explained, Hollywood has an abundance of “players… agents, publicist, trainers, all these characters, advisors… that get in the way of you and the person you’re going to be working with.” He liked the direct relationship with writer/director Chandor (Margin Call), and the kind of one-on-one intensity that resulted in this bravura performance.
Image Credit: Jason Bailey/ Flavorwire
In spite of its solitary nature, this is not a showy performance. With our total attention and a camera in close proximity, Redford steadfastly refuses to overplay, so we glimpse his mounting frustration in throwaway moments, his unspoken sadness on his face as he regards his sinking ship, and the whirlwind of complex emotions flashing across his face as he writes (silently) the letter we’ve already heard.
The film itself doesn’t quite match his brooding intensity (in the Grown-Up Survival Tales™ derby, it’s neither as moving as The Grey nor as exhilarating as Gravity, and it would’ve benefited from a release before that film and not after). But it’s a vital, exciting piece of work from Mr. Redford, an actor whom you’d have been forgiven for counting out by now.
All Is Lost screens this week at the New York Film Festival. It’s out October 18 in limited release.