by Tony Dayoub
While hardcore admirers of Gravity are getting their collective back up because astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is finding all kinds of nits to pick in their beloved movie, there's another front from which to criticize the science fiction survival film that has seen very little discussion. Let's be clear, just as Tyson admits he liked the film, I believe Gravity is a spectacular adventure. But its tale of an astronaut stranded in the vastness of space is not too dissimilar from All is Lost, starring Robert Redford as a man adrift miles from land in a sinking sailboat. Between the two, Gravity has nothing on All is Lost when it comes to creating even the impression of real despair in the face of peril.
There are maybe three lines in the whole film after a brief narration by Redford that opens the movie, a might more realistic than the continuous, frantic monologue Sandra Bullock must deliver in Gravity. And as I said in that earlier review, it's really a disservice to Bullock, another way that a female can be perceived as having it less together than a male. What makes All is Lost so enthralling is watching Redford—an actor that at his blindingly beautiful prime had to contend with critical jabs for being all looks and little substance—handle himself better than just about anyone else one could imagine in the part. This is a tour-de-force performance, the kind you retire on.
Here is Redford, still looking impossibly boyish when you squint as director J.C. Chandor silhouettes him against a majestic sunset. Then the next minute, he looks every bit of his 77 years of age, his skin worn, his damp hair drooping onto a face crevassed like some kind of craggy natural wonder. Perhaps because Redford has always been so handsome—in the New Hollywood period of the 70s his throwback classical movie star looks stood out next to those of stars like Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, and Al Pacino—he overcompensated for his looks by seeking out dark, morally gray material, first to act in, then to direct. But now, Redford is positively venerable. I can't fathom why at a point in life when most actors opt for easier, supporting roles, Redford went for a physically demanding part in a movie about a man tossed around by and submerged under giant waves. I don't get why he'd do it, but I'm glad he did.
Chandor piles on just about every challenge a man could face while adrift at sea alone until it almost becomes ridiculous. But minimizing All is Lost's dialogue to practically nothing doesn't slow the movie down; it makes it even more thrilling. There is none of the new-agey philosophizing of Life of Pi or the plaintive lonely cries that fill the void in Gravity. All is Lost offers us space. Space to appreciate the legendary Redford. Space to understand the kinds of obstacles his character must contend with. Space to marvel at the total professionalism with which he diligently responds to his circumstances. And space to project our own emotions onto the screen, to invest something of ourselves in this everyman played by a guy who once personified all-American and is now in a sort of raging twilight.
All is Lost should garner an Oscar nomination for Redford and deservedly so. He is the linchpin of the film, and the single most engrossing reason you'll want to spend time with the movie. I'll give it to Bullock; she is a likable enough protagonist in Gravity. But watch All is Lost and then answer one question: if you were in that kind of a jam wouldn't you'd rather be with Redford?
All is Lost is playing at the 51st New York Film Festival at 6pm tonight at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall, 1941 Broadway (at 65th Street), New York, NY 10023; and 9 pm Thursday, October 10th at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater, 165 West 65th St (north side between Broadway and Amsterdam, upper level), New York, NY 10023. For ticket information go online here, or call (212) 721-6500.