I've been hugging myself practically all weekend.
What is acting? That's invariably the question asked at the beginning of every acting course. Is it expressing emotion? Is it pretending to be someone else? In the big picture sense, the best answer I ever gleaned came from a great acting teacher I had: "Being interesting and creating intimacy. Do those two things and you'll be a good actor". And on a more simple level underneath those things, he noted, acting is doing.
In the new castaway movie "All Is Lost", Robert Redford is indeed interesting while creating intimacy, in a performance built almost exclusively on doing, because the screenplay contains so few words. Most of them are spoken in narration in the movie's opening moments as Redford composes a letter on his eighth day lost at sea somewhere in the Indian Ocean.
Flashback to eight days earlier and Redford awaking to the sounds of his medium-sized yacht colliding with a large shipping container, causing water to come pouring in through the fresh gash in the side of his "Virginia Jean". Visual clues inform us that we're dealing in modern times: inside the cabin, a waterlogged laptop and radio transmitter, while outside a shipping container bleeds shoes destined for western feet.
Redford evaluates the damage, sees what must be done, begins dealing with it. Watching him free his boat from the large metal container is fascinating. I like when movies teach you something, even if it isn't as glamorous as counting cards or tripping bank alarms.
And the doing continues as Redford patches up his ship, tests his navigation controls, takes inventory of his supplies, dines on a romantic dinner for one of Asian Sidekicks, and appears to perform his own stunts, including repair work atop his mast and a nail-biting sequence when a storm causes Virginia to capsize, taking him down with her and back up again.
Real suspense is gathered all throughout by the natural fact that Redford is no longer a young man. In his mid-70's now, he moves in that deliberate, cautious way older people do, and I found myself entranced by the economy of his movements. That is not to say he is no longer a sex symbol, because after a woman sitting near me whispered,"Still so handsome", I clearly heard her friend growl in that way Roy Orbison does in "Pretty Woman". We know Redford's face so well that, like Clint Eastwood or Paul Newman, just the parsing of his lips, a slight movement in his jaw, or an almost unnoticeable grunt in his throat suggests everything that mere words make literal. It's one of his best performances.
At the beginning, the movie informs us that Redford's 1,700 nautical miles from land, a fact he may not even be aware of himself. How did he slip that far away? Why is he out there? Who is this guy? What's his story? And then I think of acting school again and wise teachers quick to remind us that bad actors seek motivations while good ones live in a world of intentions, which are inherently more active by way of being forward-looking. And that's what "All Is Lost" is in its purest form, an engrossing and almost silent film built out of what acting schools call "moment-to-moment" exercises. It is the culmination of-sorts of all the other "lost" movies in recent and even not-so-recent memory--"Cast Away" comes to mind--only this one pares everything back to something sparse in that our hero only has himself to rely on from beginning to end. No jokey co-pilot, no Wilson, no Richard Parker. Total isolation.
J.C. Chandor's second directing effort is worlds apart from his debut from a couple years ago, the talky and intelligent Wall Street drama "Margin Call". Like the little Canadian movie in limited release at the moment called "The Disappeared" about six Newfoundlanders lost in the Northern Atlantic, "All Is Lost" has the same feeling of not appearing to be written or directed as much as it seems to simply exist, alive and free of the usual Hollywood constraints of plotting and dialogue.
About the final moments of the film, I will not reveal anything except to say that I feel a movie is exactly what it shows, and here is one dandy of a conclusion that is remarkable for being able to communicate two things all at once to an attentive audience.
As Redford's intentions to do the right thing are thwarted by a series of unfortunate events causing his Virginia Jean to sink while he floats on a roofless, inflatable liferaft, forced to ponder his own mortality, his story echoes that of Job's in a compelling narrative that is told as simply and directly as Hemingway's prose. The defining feature of course is that he is no ordinary "Old Man and the Sea" as much as he rightly becomes "Our Man and the Sea".