In the absence of a charismatic volleyball for Captain Ron to vent to, All Is Lost is practically a silent movie in that there is almost no dialogue whatsoever, save for an opening diary entry, an SOS call and what Ned Flanders would no doubt call "the loudest profanity I've ever heard". Thankfully, the sound design is first rate; creaking hulls, gushing water, lashing rain and high winds all provide their own dialogue to compensate for Captain Ron's dignified silence.
Redford - colossally fit for a 77-year-old - is mesmerising in the role and commands your complete attention. This is acting purely as a physical art form, almost entirely stripped of emotion - or at least any emotion that isn't inherent to the performance. Captain Ron is a cipher - no name, no motivation, no pictures of his kids waiting for him back home. Unlike 127 Hours, there's no internal dialogue to clue us in; unlike Buried, there's no one at the other end of the phone. He is simultaneously everyone and no one. All that matters is that he survives, and Redford works so hard in making you care, it doesn't matter why.
Tedium does threaten to set in after the first 30 minutes due to a lot of boat-based 'tootling' which I'm sure means a lot to the sailors in the audience, but baffled a 'lando' like me. Captain Ron puts up a sail, then takes it down. Captain Ron puts a heavy yellow sack in the water, then he takes it out. Captain Ron scoots up the mast to plug in a doohickey, frowns, then scoots down again. None of this has any bearing on the story - and the bits that do, like Captain Ron's attempts to learn celestial navigation due to his frazzled electronics, are spelled out simply enough - but there are plenty of moments that might drown the non-seafarers among us in detail.
(I'm picturing real men of the ocean watching All Is Lost, scoffing at Robert Redford's knots and belittling his bilge pump. Imaginary sailors are mean).
Once the storm kicks up, however, All Is Lost comes into its own. It is fascinating to watch someone survive on their resourcefulness alone, and not in an action hero bullshit way, but in a very real 'life or death' sense. Director JC 'Margin Call' Chandor refuses to let plot contrivances dictate the story and Redford refuses to grandstand in scenes where lesser actors would surely overshoot. All Is Lost is a movie that is understated, yet still manages to play out on a staggeringly huge canvas; the personal and the universal one and the same.
And powering the whole endeavour? The ocean, churning away like life itself, giving and taking away, slowly, quietly, maliciously sapping the energy from our hero with each rolling wave. Redford is magnificent, but All Is Lost is about paying due respect to the awesome majesty of nature and it'd be foolish for me not to do the same.