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In anticipation of Gravity, I wrote that every year “we hope for at least one movie that goes beyond high entertainment to offer a kind of cleansing or absolution.” Turns out the movie I was waiting for is All Is Lost.

The film opens with an austere shot, low to the water, of nothing but the ocean, the sky, and the line where they meet. There is a slow pan that reveals a floating cargo container. Then a short voice over by Robert Redford. He’s reading a castaway’s letter. His rations are low, and his situation seems hopeless.

Redford’s distinctive voice is at once slow, precise, and weary. The dialogue, by writer and director J.C. Chandor, hits just the right balance of abstraction. It functions as both a description of one man’s specific circumstance, and as a pretty good summation of the entire human condition: “I have tried to be good,” he writes. “To be honest. To be true. I have not.”

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Eight days earlier, that same cargo container cracks into the hull of a sailboat out on the Indian Ocean; its lone pilot the nameless man Redford plays. His face is the only one we will see for the entire film. We watch him proceed through the logistics of the problem: he clears his valuables out of the water-logged hull, ascertains how to maneuver the boat to prevent more water from flowing in, takes stock of his tools, and begins repairing the breach. Then a storm rolls in, and everything goes to hell.

Redford’s performance here is astounding for its subtlety. All Is Lost contains almost no dialogue — just the opening narration, a few short sentences spoken into a radio, some cries for help, and what may be the most well-earned F-bomb in the history of American cinema. Redford proceeds with the self-possession and slightly-performed dignity of an elderly man successful enough to own his own boat. He subsumes the character’s emotions beneath the physical work of adapting to his mounting trials.

As the director, Chandor is patient with his camera. He trusts the passages through desperation, relief, and grief will communicate on his actor’s face. The quiet, terrible sublimity of the film’s title is well-earned. All Is Lost forces its audience to intimately observe, step by step, the process by which hope is abandoned and mortality confronted. Late in the movie, after his resources dwindle and his options fall away, Redford’s raw physical inability to toss his letter into the ocean – a practical acknowledgment that he is going to die – is almost too much to bear.

Lyricism also seeps in Chandor’s work. There are beautiful underwater shots of crabs and fish playing beneath Redford’s raft, and horrifying ones of circling sharks. The main musical theme by composer Alexander Ebert, which the film returns to several times, perfectly matches the circumstances in the same way Alan Silvestri’s score did in Cast Away. Despite its comparable technical modesty, All Is Lost hits notes on mankind’s confrontation with the natural world’s immensity that rival those in both Gravity and Life of Pi.

The dialogue my be sparse, but it is also superbly deployed. The effect of that opening narration on the film’s emotional resonance is critical. The storm and everything that comes after is not simply the random cruelties of an indifferent universe, or a metaphor for life’s slings and arrows. Some of the character’s solutions work. And some of them rebound in humiliatingly unexpected ways to make his situation even worse. At times it’s unclear whether his worst enemy is the sea or himself. The whole thing becomes a kind of penance, a protestation by the universe against the pathogen that is imperfect humanity and our capacity for sin.

So All Is Lost isn’t just a quest for survival. Its action collapses that search into the quest for forgiveness and for grace — and acknowledges that grace will come, not through triumph, but through deliverance.

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