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Although we often single out particular performances in a film above others, the unspoken understanding is that all performances and actors, to one extent or another, help contribute to the overall quality of a piece. This is obviously true of ensemble films, which live or die by their assembled cast but the same is true of pretty much any film, with one notable exception: those rare productions that involve only one actor/actress. In these instances, rare as they are, the entire dramatic weight of the story can rest on only one pair of shoulders, narrow or broad as they may be. Similar to stage plays, one-actor showcases can be dicey affairs: with the right performer, we have an unprecedented opportunity to peer inside a particular character. With the wrong actor, we become trapped in a kind of purgatory, spending an entire film with someone we detest, with no opportunity for “rescue,” as it were. When single-actor films are well-done (Moon, 127 Hours, Silent Running, Buried, Gravity, Cast Away), they can be truly special: J.C. Chandor’s newest film, the Robert Redford-starring All is Lost, is definitely one of the exceptional ones.

In many ways, All is Lost is so simple as to become almost symbolic: a man (Redford, named only as “Our Man” in the cast list) wakes up on his sailboat and realizes that a free-floating shipping container has punched a hole in his boat. The ship is taking on water slowly but surely and Our Man must do everything he can to stay alive. Period. That’s pretty much it, folks. In fact, the whole film unfolds in something that would feel like real-time if we had a week to spend with our protagonist. There are no other actors on-screen, no other voices heard off-screen. The movie opens with Redford’s voice-over saying, “All is lost now…I will miss you…I’m sorry.” And, for almost two hours, those are the only words we hear.

You see, unlike similar films like Cast Away, Moon or Gravity, however, we don’t get lots of scenes where the solo protagonist talks endlessly to themselves. Not on this boat. Rather, we get things just the way they would really happen: Our Man grunts, huffs, puffs, occasionally curses and puts his nose to the grindstone but he does not engage in soliloquies. In certain ways, Our Man is almost like a modern update of Eastwood’s Man With No Name: he’s rugged, individualistic, no-nonsense, take-charge and probably leaving the world the same way he came in – alone.

All is Lost, in many ways, is a perfect model of efficiency. As Our Man’s trials continue, Chandor slowly but resolutely continues to increase the pressure and find new ways to up the tension. Just when things look hopeful, a terrible storm comes out of nowhere… Our Man escapes from his sailboat with plenty of time, only to need to return at the last moment to grab something…a signal fire turns from helpful to potentially lethal…a successful fishing attempt turns into an introduction to several sharks…at any given point, Our Man reacts calmly, rationally and adeptly, only to have the universe throw yet another problem in his face. Rather than whine, pout or complain it, however, Our Man just sighs, sticks his chin out and moves on to Plan J. In a world where decisive “men-of-action” seem to be a thing of the past, Our Man’s tough resolution is both quaint and necessary.

As with any one-actor showcase, All is Lost is almost completely dependent on that actor. To that end, Chandor hedged his bets and went with Redford, still one of the finest actors around at the ripe old age of almost 80. Redford is such a masterful actor that he ends up doing more with his eyebrows than most actors do with a monologue. He looks old, to be frankly honest, but he never seems frail: if anything, this is one old guy who could (and probably would) administer one severe ass-whupping. It’s to the film’s great credit that nothing comes across as far-fetched or unlikely: Our Man, thanks to Redford, seems exactly like the kind of ornery cuss that would react in just this manner to just this situation. While it’s unlikely that a lead role with only a small handful of speaking lines would ever be nominated for, much less win, a Best Actor Oscar, it still feels like Redford was unduly snubbed this year.

Aside from the phenomenal acting by Redford, All is Lost looks gorgeous, making excellent use of both the deep-sea and stage sets to create a nearly seamless illusion: perhaps I could find the seams if I looked harder but only common sense really let me know what scene was filmed where. The sound design, in particular, is extraordinary: each creak of the mast, each slap of water against the ship’s side, is delivered in crystal clarity and aid immeasurably in the all-engulfing feel of the film. As someone who can’t swim, this was about as close to be being stranded at sea as I could ever see myself getting and I’m pretty okay with that.

At the end of the day, All is Lost is quite simple but completely effective. If you’re looking for a thrilling tale of man vs nature, look no further. Turn off the lights, turn up the sound and remember: all may be lost but in the best way possible.

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