Don't let the title fool you. Robert Redford, perhaps Hollywood's most underrated journeyman, has found the role of a lifetime in All Is Lost, a masterful, Oscar-worthy narrative of a search for self-awareness, set on a roiling ocean where self matters little. All Is Lost is the second in a string of survival-themed films out this fall, which includes Gravity--the 3-D space odyssey not to be missed--and 12 Years A Slave, an epic of endurance and purpose coming to Boise in November.
In roles that he has called "intrinsically American guys," Redford has portrayed everyone's favorite outlaw (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), intrepid reporter (All the President's Men) and great white hunter (Out of Africa). He is also an expert comedian--bringing to mind Cary Grant's best work--in films such as Barefoot in the Park and The Candidate. Redford's work behind the camera is also notable: He won the Best Director Oscar for Ordinary People. Bundle all of that up with his Sundance Institute--midwife to the rebirth of American independent film--and maybe we should go ahead and add Redford's face to Mount Rushmore.
But if my guess is right, Redford's highest praise may still be in store, after audiences discover All Is Lost, a vast, largely wordless spectacle. Redford's last visit to the Academy Awards was in 2002, when he was granted an honorary statuette, primarily for his work with the Sundance Institute. Here's hoping that he kept that tux in storage for a return visit to the Oscars next year, when he's certain to be nominated for Best Actor. It's a role of a lifetime for Redford, who portrays an experienced yachtsman--credited only as "Our Man"--reduced to near nothingness as he is tormented by the Indian Ocean.
The title of the film refers specifically to words Redford's nameless character writes in a farewell letter to his loved ones (whom we never see):
"I think you would all agree that I tried," he writes. "I tried to be true. I tried to be right. But I wasn't. I will miss you. I'm sorry."
All Is Lost is a perfect companion piece to Gravity. Bullock and Redford's performances, though set against dramatically different landscapes, have a nearly parallel connection: intelligence and fortitude while never over-emoting. In fact, when nighttime jet-black ocean waves envelop Redford, my thoughts raced back to Bullock's deep-space prison in Gravity. It's riveting stuff, reminding us that film can thrill like no other medium.
Though still ruggedly handsome, the 77-year-old Redford is no longer a kid. But when Our Man climbs the extremely tall mast (and yes, that's Redford up there, doing his own stunts) in the face of a monstrous storm, Redford puts most of his acting juniors to shame. His grip on the mast and his audience proves that there is nothing to be lost with Redford.