photoRobert Redford—he of the face hewn from solid, ancient rock—is the kind of actor who gets a standing ovation just for turning up somewhere. But in Cannes on Wednesday evening he also received a standing ovation for his performance in J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost.

As the credits abruptly stopped rolling and the lights came on, the crowd rose as one, give or take the few tweeters typing away furiously on their phones, to salute Redford. The actor’s eyes welled up. But no one could have been relieved at the rapturous applause than Chandor himself. All Is Lost is the cinematic equivalent of going all in on a blind hand of poker. It is the story of a man lost at sea after a hole is suddenly carved into the side of his boat by a shipping container floating in the ocean. The film features Robert Redford and nobody else. And throughout the running time of a 100 minutes Redford speaks no more than a few lines. (The most satisfying, human and visceral of these utterances being a full-throated ‘Fuuuuckkkk!’ that roles out of his mouth like gravel out of a battered cement mixer around 80 minutes into the film.)

The film opens to the briefest of monologues that streams over a slow shot of the container floating at an acute angle in the sea. The camera then swoops in, making a monolith of this most mundane tool of human commerce. And then we go back eight days in time, moments before impact.

Chandor’s first film, Margin Call, was one of the better films to emerge from the creative exuberance unleashed by the economic collapse of 2008. Released two years ago the film told the story of the first 36-hours at a Wall Street bank as the economic crisis begins to unfold. In it Chandor took a minimal approach to tell a story comprised solely of, as it were, maximums. Billions of dollars were turning into vapour, hundreds of careers and lives were being incinerated, and conscience and morality were being turned into meaningless pulp in boardrooms. And you know, despite or maybe because of the film’s claustrophobic use of space, that this crisis is playing out in dozens of other boardrooms all over the world.

Yet Chandor’s minimal story-telling and forced perspectives helped to keep the phenomena from over-powering the people that engineered the crisis. Ever since Lehman Brothers went bankrupt there has been an attempt to explain away the crisis in terms of huge systemic failures that overwhelmed hapless bankers and regulators. It was nobody’s fault because it was everybody’s fault. One of Margin Call’s great strengths was that it didn’t subscribe to his cop-out theory. It merely depicted what happened when things, and subsequently people, break down.

All Is Lost makes the minimal Margin Call look as extravagant as a Baz Luhrman feature.

A man on a sinking boat in the middle of the sea. Chandor starts with that minimal premise… and then begins to whittle away at even that. First there is a small hole in the side of a large boat. All Is Lost ends with a large flaming hole in a tiny life-boat.

Robert Redford is terrific as the only character in this movie. In Chandor’s first film it was not that hard to subdue Zachary Quinto, Paul Bettany and the rest of the cast to the overwhelming momentum of the plot itself. You constantly have this voice in your head saying: “So this is how the world changed completely…"

In All Is Lost this subjugation to plot seems much, much harder. Robert Redford. Alone. On screen. For a 100 minutes. How do you pay attention to anything else? Yet Chandor’s screenplay, hand-held camera work and the relentless momentum of the story is engrossing. The lack of dialogue, perhaps, is what gives the film such balance. A silent Robert Redford is somehow less ‘Robert Redford’ and more ‘random guy I hope does not die’.

Redford’s character perseveres silently—he repairs his boat, rations his food, maps his position on the sea with a sextant, shaves in the middle of a thunderstorm. The only moment when the film elicited a laugh from the audience was when Redford slowly transfers to a lifeboat from his nearly-capsized boat. But returns to pick up a spoon and fork from a submerged kitchen drawer.

However the sea slowly carves away at his resolve. It takes away his boat, his food, his water…

My greatest dilemma while watching the movie was figuring out the morality of the Redford character. Sure, I hope he doesn’t die. But who is he? Why is he in the middle of the sea alone? Is he running away from somewhere? Somebody? And who is he apologising to in the opening monologue? To himself? The world? Life?

The minimalism of Chandor’s first movie seemed vital to the story. The unreliability of financial risk management models is impossible material in the hands of any director. So some things were best left to exist off-camera, radiating its searing heat onto the actors.

In All Is Lost the minimalism seems a little more stylistic. It is more deliberate. Therefore it creates more ambiguity. It lends itself, perhaps intentionally, to interpretation and re-interpretation. This is not new in film-making. But then neither is the plot itself.

Therefore All Is Lost has no real answer to the question: ‘What is the point of it all?’ Besides, of course, an Oscar nomination for Robert Redford.

All Is Lost is an ambitious second film for J.C. Chandor and a spectacular, satisfying role for Robert Redford. Go see it.

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