Gravity may have been the best shipwreck film released this year, but JC Chandor's follow-up to Margin Call certainly runs it close.
This is the real thing, of course. We have an actual ship on an actual ocean. Sharks circle. Readings are taken from a blazing sun. If you can banish the notion that you're watching a New Yorker cartoon without a punchline, you should be gripped from tense beginning to exhausting end.
All Is Lost could hardly be more different to Chandor's impressive debut. Whereas that film, a study of Wall Street's meltdown, resounded to the clatter of panicked voices in painted halls, this daring picture – a high-concept thriller if ever there was one – puts one man in one boat for 90 minutes.
There are no flashbacks to a happier life on shore. He never makes successful radio contact. Aside from a brief, opening voiceover and a few forgivable oaths, Our Man (as he is listed on the credits) says not a word throughout the film's nippy course. Ryan Reynolds had quite a few chats in Buried. Gravity's great weakness was the unnecessarily abundant corny dialogue. All Is Lost is makes no such compromises.
It helps that Robert Redford plays the protagonist. He's not quite the Old Man of the Sea: the teeth are a bit too well-tended and the wrinkles too cosmetically maintained for a believable Hemmingway hero. But our pre-existing connection to the man who died in Bolivia with Butch Cassidy and shared smoky elevators with Carl Bernstein kicks up an emotional surge that an unfamiliar actor would have more trouble generating. It's a little like watching Santa Claus or George Bailey in peril.
All Is Lost begins with Our Man awaking to discover that a loose shipping container has poked a hole in the side of his yacht. Miles from dry land, he calmly sets to mending the gap, clearing up the mess and establishing some degree of order. Then a serious storm worsens the situation. The boat is beaten to pieces, his radio is destroyed and, after various increasing misfortunes, he takes to a life raft and attempts to find his position with a sextant. A nearby shipping route offers some hope of rescue.
There are narrative difficulties in the film’s first half. Chandor is right not to have the hero stupidly explain stuff to us in muttered monologues (“Now if I just tie this rope to this plank that should shift it”) but the decision does occasionally leave us confused. Why, for instance does he pour water into the damaged electrical equipment? (My bet is that he was trying to wash out the salt. But I can’t be sure.)
When, however, the picture resolves into a simple fight for survival in a tethered dinghy, it properly discovers its own momentum. Scored to a gorgeously simple refrain by Alex Ebert, the last act follows the hero as he swings from quiet determination to exhausted despair. It's as if all attitudes depicted in Géricault's Raft of the Medusa are visited by one determined face. The creative risks pay off as the focus on the hero becomes ever more intense.
All Is Lost closes a year that took in more than a few impressive tales of robust bravery. As Our Man looks hopefully towards shipping vessels sailing blithely past his tiny raft, it's hard not to imagine that, at any moment, Tom Hanks's Captain Phillips might appear on the bridge and wave to the lonely castaway.
The organisers of the Oscars can have that skit from me for free. Both films are sure to be represented.