Movie actors don’t retire much these days, which ups the number of movies you see at film festivals that reflect on aging. Not that I’m complaining: Robert Redford, fresh off his star-studded but kind of poky The Company You Keep, steps in front of someone else’s camera for the first time in years for JC Chandor’s All Is Lost. Not only that, it’s a one-man show: Redford is literally the only visible actor in this movie, which joins him on his boat as water begins washing into his below-deck bed (a recurring shot; later, it laps troublingly onto his couch) and leaves him before another human face turns up. In between, Redford’s unnamed protagonist simply faces the elements of sailing on the ocean. Water shorts out his radio and navigation equipment. Debris tears a hole in his boat. Storms do the bad stuff that storms do. A bunch of his books get ruined.
It’s only Chandor’s second feature, and he’s already made a major departure: Margin Call was mostly talk, while All Is Lost has almost no dialogue at all. The dogged, observant filmmaking—and Redford’s largely silent, equally dedicated bit of physical acting—take precedent, and the movie is a confidently austere experiment. All Is Lost, which appears very real apart from a handful of fudged-looking stunt shots, might serve as a rebuke to effects-heavy survival stories from the past year like Life of Pi and Gravity—except, I’m sorry, call me a philistine, but both of those movies are way better. I know, I know: I’m blinded by the 3D dazzle of well-rendered CG tigers and spaceships. But Ang Lee and Alfonso Cuaron used these high-tech tools with great ingenuity, while the back-to-basics All Is Lost must rely on a lot of familiar peril-at-sea elements: devastating storms, ships passing frustratingly in the distance, limited food and water. (Redford does avoid the survivalist beard; his pre-storm shave is a nicely human detail.) Even if you’re going back to basics, Kon-Tiki went back there earlier this year.
That’s not to sneer at the film’s accomplishments, which are substantial. But for all of its old-fashioned excitement, I found myself more alert and engaged by the cul-de-sac journey of Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, which also reflects on the aging process via a narrative frame of just a few days. Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) isn’t quite senile, but he isn’t quite in the frame of mind that would keep him from setting off from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, on foot, convinced he’s won a Publisher’s Clearinghouse-style sweepstakes prize. His frustrated son David (Will Forte) agrees to drive him to collect his winnings, even though he doesn’t believe it for a second.