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Roadside Attractions
Robert Redford is the only person on screen, in a largely silent role, in “All Is Lost.”

Movie Review: Redford captivates in solitary role

‘All Is Lost’

It’s been a spectacular last few weeks at the multiplex. Between “Gravity,” “Captain Phillips” and “12 Years a Slave” – to name just a few – even the most casual filmgoer now has reason to rush to theater every weekend, with the eager devotion of the most compulsive cineaste.

Now there is another must-see on the marquee. “All Is Lost,” a harrowing man-at-sea adventure starring Robert Redford, reprises this fall’s theme of protagonists isolated and adrift in the midst of an indifferent, wantonly cruel universe. But writer-director J.C. Chandor distills that idea to its visually purest form yet, in a one-man study of revealing character through action, showing, not telling, and taking filmgoers on a physical and existential voyage that proves why big-screen movies can still matter.

The beating heart at the center of Chandor’s daunting exercise is Redford himself, who plays his nameless adventurer in a virtually wordless performance with the wary determination a generation came to know and adore throughout the 1970s. His still-handsome face is now weathered and aged and grows more painfully sunburned in the course of his character’s week-long ordeal, which begins when the boat he’s sailing is rammed by an errant shipping container somewhere in the Indian Ocean.

Like those masterful films that have preceded it this year, “All Is Lost” pivots around a random, ultimately terrifying encounter between one person and the mechanistic forces of globalization. But the presence of Redford adds a layer of pathos that surely won’t be lost on the filmgoers who came of age with his golden good looks, as the avatar of a generation contemplates mortality that looms closer by the minute.

Chandor – who arrived on the scene a few years ago with the assured Wall Street thriller “Margin Call” – shows similar confidence and skill, as well as newfound ambition, working on a bravura scale. He filmed “All Is Lost” at the same Baja location as “Titanic,” and his film possesses the same old-fashioned sense of spectacle, all the more impressive for being so self-contained and finely tuned. Since there is almost no dialogue, the film consists mostly of Redford’s protagonist thinking and solving problems, methodical, unhurried processes that don’t immediately lend themselves to on-screen thrills.

But Chandor’s attention to detail, and the expressiveness and utter believability with which Redford goes about the anything-but-mundane business of surviving, make “All Is Lost” a technically dazzling, emotionally absorbing, often unexpectedly beautiful experience.

Swinging his way through the scuttled boat, hoisting himself up to make repairs, squinting into the sun as he devises shrewd ways to find fresh drinking water, Redford never lets one false or vain moment slip through. At a time when his 70-something colleagues are trying desperately to prove they’re still hip, macho and relevant, he quietly delivers a one-man master class in the art of screen acting in what is arguably the finest and certainly the bravest performance of his career.