As I watched Robert Redford acting all by himself in the superlative survival-at-sea movie All Is Lost, I suddenly realized why the setup feels so perfect: Redford is most in his element when he's alone.
His strength — and it seemed huge when he started in the late '50s and '60s — has always been his ability to convey thought on-screen. But he has never been much of an inter-acter, which is one reason his Jay Gatsby in the 1974 The Great Gatsby adaptation was a nonstarter. Gatsby thinks he needs someone else to complete him, whereas Redford looked uncomfortable when Mia Farrow's Daisy invaded his personal space.
The only time Redford has shown convincing affection onscreen was for Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting. After that, his most successful pairing was with Barbra Streisand in The Way We Were — and there the whole point was that the pushy Jewish woman and vaguely embarrassed WASP had a kind of anti-chemistry.
So here he is alone in All Is Lost, as an unnamed man whose 39-foot yacht drifts into an abandoned shipping container in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The container punches a hole in the side, water pours in, and what follows is a chain of disasters I'd call a perfect storm if the phrase weren't so overused.
I'm not giving anything away: The movie opens with the man reading a goodbye letter in voiceover as what's left of a raft bobs up and down. He apologizes to someone — his family, presumably, but the recipients are, like the man's name and profession, unstated. The point is that with death imminent, he seems finally to understand the ways in which he wasn't there for the people who needed him.
All Is Lost then flashes back to the start of the debacle, with the man waking up to find water pouring into his yacht. The film is at heart a procedural thriller. The man must extricate his sailboat from that container, pump out the water that has flooded the electrical system, and in various ways make his vessel seaworthy again. Writer-director J.C. Chandor breaks the narrative down into perfect fixer-upper units, and I would never have guessed that boat repair could be so riveting.
Redford looks amazing for a man in his late '70s. His skin is cracked and weathered — which has been true for decades, since he started spending so much time on the ski slopes — but his face has held its shape. And I've never been so conscious of his physical assurance.
That strength of his I mentioned, that ability to convey thought, is what keeps us watching even though he doesn't say a word for the first 90 minutes: It's all music and the sound of the ship creaking as it bobs up and down, or the noise of the storms that nearly wipe him out.
All Is Lost is also a parable, and there's some heavy-handed religious imagery in the final moments. But something momentous does happen on-screen, something that speaks to our connection with actors over time. What Redford and Chandor have pulled off is the ultimate fusion of actor and character. As the man loses control for maybe the first time in his life — as all indeed seems lost — Redford does something unprecedented for him on-screen: He lets go. He makes contact with the audience as he never has before. He stops thinking.