By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
While only tangential to a discussion of director J.C. Chandor’s “All Is Lost,” it occurs that we are a species of comparers. To wit, the question most asked of your humble auditor this week: Whose performance is better, Robert Redford as a yachtsmen adrift in the Indian Ocean in this movie, or Sandra Bullock as the lost-in-space medical officer in “Gravity?”
But that would egregiously disqualify Tom Hanks’s portrayal of the Robinson Crusoe-like survivalist in “Cast Away” (2000) from this sweepstakes. Rule #573, section iiB of the Film Critics Manual specifically dictates that comparisons of movie characters confronted with isolation and their mortality must be parsed in thirteen year segments.
Now, it would be dismissive to say it’s like comparing apples and oranges. Actually, it’s more like comparing McIntosh with Delicious and Granny Smiths. All three deliver juicy, tension-filled performances.
However, just in case this inquiry turns up as a question on your kids’ SATs, I’d feel safe in advising them that it’s Miss Bullock in first place and destined for an Oscar nomination, Hanks second, and Mr. Redford competently showing in the money.
Now that that’s that all cleared up, and to stretch a metaphor more than is seemly, you have to be in the mood to bite into this apple. More specifically, a strong interest in acting will go far to assure your concern for the travail confronting Robert Redford’s lost soul, identified in the credits as Our Man.
This is the stuff of scene studies, wherein, as any dilettantish acting coach worth his ascot can tell you, one’s whole instrument must be called upon to exact character, situation, and whatever else you feel it’s important for the audience to contemplate and process. As Our Man struggles with practically every challenge of survival after an errant shipping container cuts a hole in his boat’s hull, the dramatic goal is, first to win your empathy, and secondly to get you thinking about that thin thread from which we dangle.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, which theoretically at least should make for an interesting mix in the theater, there is much here for the Hemingway-ishly inclined. Supplied with just about every gizmo and gadget the ardent boater can find in his Cabela’s catalog (except, alas, a global phone), Redford’s wayward sailor employs his store of goods with angst-filled realism.
Of course, as can be gleaned from the disheartening opening scene, not everything works. Informing he has but a half day of rations left and about an equal amount of optimism, he writes his epitaph and offers an apology to all whom it may concern. The picture turns black and then the screen announces, “Eight Days Earlier.”
I won’t give it away, but all I was thinking at that point is, ‘They better not put me through all this and then let him die.’ Not that you give much of a hoot in the beginning.
I mean, who is he? Yes, he’s a fellow human and as such you hope he survives. In time, however, surmising and inferring by his conduct and appearance, you build a fiction. He’s probably well-heeled…obviously intelligent. Can’t tell from that Southwestern-styled ring on his ring finger if he’s married… but bet there’s a story there, huh?
In short, part of the entertainment potential resides in how much you enjoy such interpolation. And maybe it’s because our finer instincts lead us to think the best of someone. Hence, as his trials and tribulations ensue, you attribute Our Man with a certain amount of nobility. After all, judging from his demeanor and conviction, symbolically he is us, n’est-ce pas? Although, admittedly, I don’t think I could figure out how to use that sextant he pulls out when his hi-tech navigation stuff goes kablooie.
Granted, interest of the seat-edged variety accrues slowly. But, courtesy of Mr. Redford’s fine portrayal, and not to mention the time you’ve by now invested, you eventually care.
And then there’s that other attention-grabbing curiosity that enters the equation. Since we’ve known this American Adonis for decades, and he’s the only person on the screen for one hundred and six minutes, our more gossipy inclinations can’t help but muse about his appearance.
Shamefully, I’ve been remiss in keeping up my “National Enquirer” subscription, so I can’t really say. Suffice it to note, the Internet is abuzz with speculation. And while only his plastic surgeon knows for sure, what the heck? OK, so he has no picture of himself rotting in the attic. But gosh, the guy is 77 and credibly playing a character in his mid-sixties.
Note: This is a niche interest vehicle, for adventurers, thespic enthusiasts and Redford fans. While the golden boy hasn’t discovered the fountain of youth, with “All Is Lost” he has found a venue to prove, with no small amount of panache, his continued dramatic validity.
“All Is Lost,” rated R, is a Lionsgate release directed by J.C. Chandor and stars Robert Redford. Running time: 106 minutes
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