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Film review: Less is way more in the riveting ‘All Is Lost’

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You might not want to get on a boat for a while after seeing All Is Lost, starring Robert Redford.

Three and a half stars

All Is Lost Robert Redford. Directed by J.C. Chandor. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday.

The unnamed protagonist of All Is Lost must be the unluckiest man at sea. The movie opens as he wakes to water flooding the cabin of his yacht, which has been struck by an errant shipping container. From there, things only get worse, as the water damage has shorted out his communications and navigation equipment, and although he’s initially able to patch up the hole, he soon sails right into a storm that makes the shipping container look like a minor inconvenience.

Writer-director J.C. Chandor made his debut with the very talky financial-crisis drama Margin Call, but All Is Lost takes nearly the opposite approach to dialogue and exposition. As played by Robert Redford, the main character almost never speaks, and a brief, mostly inscrutable voiceover at the beginning of the movie is the only insight into his background or motivations. With another actor, this might have been a disastrous strategy, but Redford does a fantastic job of conveying every nuance of emotion in his character with just a look or a gesture, even without a single other actor to interact with. It’s a truly impressive performance from someone whose days of great performances seemed behind him; Redford ought to continue working with young filmmakers rather than directing himself as he’s been doing for the last several years.

Even as the protagonist continues to face new, seemingly impossible challenges, and Redford consistently conveys the mix of determination and resignation with which he takes on each one, the movie does eventually get a bit repetitive. By the end, each new setback is almost comical, and there’s a sense of inevitability that can turn to impatience. It’s frustrating, then, that Chandor stages a rather cheesy ending to what had up to that point been a clear-eyed, unsentimental story. Like the similar survival story Gravity, All Is Lost is best when it’s at its simplest, depicting the overwhelming difficulties of staying alive in the middle of a vast, empty ocean. With Redford at the helm, that’s all it really needs.

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