"All is Lost" is a character-driven film in the purest sense. Every scene is focused on an older man, referred to in the credits as Our Man (Robert Redford), sailing an endless stretch of ocean between Indonesia and Madagascar, some 1,700 miles, utterly alone. In the distance is the horizon, merging with a deeply blue sky, the parabola of the earth barely visible.
His is a solo journey on an elegant, beautifully detailed 39-foot sloop, the Virginia Jean, tricked out with every technological advantage and comfort, shielding against the demands of the voyage and the unpredictability of the elements.
All is silent except for the familiar sounds of water slapping gently against the hull, the creak of sails straining against the wind and the slap of halyards against the mast. Napping below, he is awakened by a crashing thud and water pouring into the cabin. Looking over the side, he realizes that a rusted metal container, lost overboard from a ship, has collided with his boat, severely damaging the side, barely above the water line.
And so begins a cascading series of events that call on the man's resilience and stamina as he goes about trying to repair the gash. He realizes that in those few moments his life has morphed from the idyllic, wherein his nautical skill sets have served him well, to the tenuous. His voyage is now an existential challenge, compounded by a descending storm that puts him and his sloop in jeopardy.
There is not a word of dialogue spoken (other than one word he screams in frustration); rather his mien is one of silent stoicism, no matter the exigencies of his situation. In other words, this is a film not of a running monologue, no voiceover, no outward reflections or expressions of panic. The narrative focuses on a man grimly executing one task after the next as the odds for his survival are increasingly diminished.
Though "All is Lost" has received many kudos for Redford's nuanced and subtle acting, his deeply lined face weathered and worn, conveying his determination, but ultimately this is a film of reaction, not to another character, not to a volleyball named Wilson, but to nature.
There is no backstory, as was sketched out in the beginning of act one in "Cast Away." And there is no denouement. Why this old man — and I'm hesitant to call Redford an old man (he is 77), since he will always be the avatar for a generation: handsome and vital, a lead actor with a rich resume stretching back to 1970 and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" — is alone, somewhere in the Indian Ocean, his isolation complete, is never explained. It is an isolation touched on by Hemingway in "The Old Man and the Sea" wherein the old man finally realizes that he has gone out too far, or touched on in the final scene in "The Searchers" as John Wayne turns and walks away from the embrace of his kin. Both are familiar narrative archetypes, not unlike this mariner who now confronts an arbitrary and indifferent universe.
Contemporary audiences may find the absence of dialogue and palpable thrills off-putting. They may even find the film a bit contrived. And it could be argued that this is not an unfair criticism. But then, theirs is a generation of talking, constantly. With small screens illuminating their faces, they are texting, heads perpetually bent down, reading diminutive messages, constantly in touch, their lives defined and framed by an ongoing, never-ending conversation, a form of distant but seemingly essential connection. That reality is the antithesis of this film. But that is not to say that this film is the antidote.
Tangentially, the title, "All is Lost," comes from the opening set up in the film when Our Man writes a message to his family in which he says, "All is lost." And apologizes for decisions that he has made which now cannot be corrected. His singular pursuit of isolation has proved to be, or so he believes, his undoing.