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‘All Is Lost” loses little but dialogue

So different from such survival sagas as “Cast Away” and “The Life of Pi,” J.Chandor's “All Is Lost” offers moviegoers a unique experience. Or so I say in the review I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

J.C. Chandor’s “All Is Lost” is the kind of movie that jaded critics tend to love. But why wouldn’t we? “All Is Lost” bears a purely professional sheen, it engenders a feeling of tension that’s likely to raise your blood pressure, it boasts an original take on the standard struggle-to-survive saga, and it features, in Robert Redford, the movie star most known for bridging the gap between independent and mainstream cinema.

Chandor, you may recall, wrote and directed “Margin Call,” a talk-heavy, A-list-actor-filled examination of the 2008 financial meltdown. In that film, Chandor charts a 24-hour period in which a posse of investment bank employees – played by the likes of Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Paul Bethany and Zachary Quinto – slowly realize their company is heading toward imminent ruin.

“All Is Lost” is about as different from “Margin Call” as cheetahs are from snails. For one thing, instead of an ensemble cast, “All Is Lost” features … well, Redford. Instead of reams of dialogue, Redford says maybe 50 words. Instead of being set in New York, one of the most populous cities on the planet, Chandor’s new movie takes place in the lonely vastness of the Indian Ocean – specifically, to begin with, some 1,700 nautical miles east of the Sumatra Straits.

That’s where Chandor’s camera pans slowly across the water and over what turns out to be a partially submerged cargo container. Meanwhile, Redford’s character (identified in the film’s credits simply as “Our Man”) recites the only extended monologue in the entire film – a personal testimony aimed at an unnamed audience. Family? Friends? We’re never told.

“I'm sorry,” he says. “I know that means little at this point, but I am. I tried. I think you would all agree that I tried. To be true, to be strong, to be kind, to love, to be right. But I wasn't.”

Then even as we are digesting all this – trying to identify who the narrator might be, recognizing the container for what it is, identifying its cargo of children’s shoes and wondering what that might mean – we are taken back in time, to a point eight days earlier. That’s when Our Man, comfortably asleep in his medium-size sailboat, is rudely awakened. Seems his boat has collided with the cargo container, randomly afloat in the open sea, water is rushing in – and the movie’s ongoing storyline, which involves Our Man’s struggle to survive, commences.

That struggle, which ably demonstrates both our protagonist’s self-help abilities and his essential vulnerabilities, involves working to patch the gradually disintegrating boat, working fruitlessly to fix water-soaked radio equipment, learning hands-on navigational techniques and, in general, enduring a growing manifestation of hell represented by sudden storms, stifling heat and growing thirst, by prowling sharks and the seemingly willful dismissal displayed as much by passing ships as nature itself.

If the casting of Redford feels, at times, questionable, that may be because he seldom takes roles that ask him to be much more than what he is by nature: a movie star instead of an actor with range. That said, “All Is Lost” is a unique, meditative example of inventive independent cinema.

Of course, as a jaded critic, I would claim that, wouldn’t I?

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