We never learn the name of the grizzled yachtsman (Robert Redford) whose eight-day fight to survive on the open sea is chronicled in J.C. Chandor's All Is Lost. In a prologue set before we flash back eight days, we hear the content of a letter written to family members, referring obliquely to the mistakes of his life. But we never know anything more about the nature of those mistakes, or his relationships, or anything beyond his immediate need to keep his head above water.
Leaving out the backstory is a risky strategy. How are we supposed to sympathize with our soggy protagonist if we don't know why he's sailing alone in the middle of nowhere? Chandor refuses to waste time on such frills, allowing Redford's iconic status to do much of the heavy lifting. The result is pure visual cinema, and it's magnificent.
There's no accident that sets Redford's character on his life-threatening course. He's merely sleeping in his 39-foot boat, more than a thousand miles from land, when it collides with a derelict shipping container. By the time he awakens and gets to work sealing the breach, his engine's batteries and his radio equipment have been damaged. And by the time he's ready to sail to safety, a storm approaches.
Chandor underplays the drama of the situation, so confident in the intensity of the hero's plight that he reserves Alex Ebert's score only for select moments. All Is Lost might feel like a film composed of mundane physical tasks, such as Redford gathering supplies and manually pumping water out of the boat. But every action is loaded with life-or-death significance. The film maintains its intensity simply by following a man who understands that methodical action is his only hope.
"Methodical action" may not sound thrilling, yet Redford's nearly wordless performance is almost perfect, and not just because his sun-weathered look makes him seem like he's been at sea his entire life. Without dialogue to let us into his head, he has to convey his character's intelligent resourcefulness physically. Those details often emerge through a shift of the eyes, or a tightening of the jaw. The most gripping moments come from watching him figure out how to make it through one more day.
As much as All Is Lost is about survival, it is also about presence, the need to strip away extraneous details to focus on the here and now.