It's already been written up in the New York Times: this is the autumn of existential survivalism at the movies. By coincidence, Gravity, Captain Phillips, 12 Years a Slave and now All Is Lost are occupying multiplex space at the same time, each film pushing its main character through a brutal physical and emotional ordeal, testing that person's ability and will to live. And if it's more or less true that the films we make reflect the anxieties and hopes of the time they're made, then We The People are in the middle of a major meltdown.
Most like Gravity of the four, All Is Lost is the story of one person's fight against an overwhelming physical force. Robert Redford as "Our Man," no other name given, opens the story reading a letter he will place in a bottle as a last ditch apology to whoever reads it. He mentions his failures but not who he failed, he regrets his inability to love but we don't know who got the short end of that relationship. And then we see why he wrote the letter: his sailboat, 1700 miles out to sea, has been punctured by a floating shipping container. He's sinking.
And that's all the backstory, all the explanation, and almost all the dialogue (an SOS call here, an exasperated bit of profanity there, much grunting) we get from this one-man story of big wave, big storm, big shark terror. Using all his boating knowledge and all his physical strength, Our Man has to out-think the body-crushing elements confronting him, using them to his advantage or die. And while he's still pretty sturdy for a guy in his 70s, Our Man is occasionally maddeningly thoughtless when it comes to using his resources in a timely or effective manner. Those lapses, of course, may have something to do with that regret-filled letter. But maybe not. This movie is really not talking.
Audience members accustomed to the more minimalist strain of arthouse film where dialogue is less important than visual, associative storytelling, will feel right at home here; others will find their attention required in ways most mainstream films don't demand. There's an unobtrusive score that refuses to manipulate and a reliance on gesture, sound design and composition in lieu of everything else but suspense and some Shark Week-level panic.
Stylistically it's a serious about-face from director J. C. Chandor, whose excellent debut feature Margin Call was stuffed with actors as Wall Street types talking a mile a minute in a pressure cooker of a New York office as the financial world collapsed around them. But emotionally, where stories impact and resonate, both films live in an environment of immediate trauma with human beings caught between fight or flight. Both rely on an assumed level of empathy, or at least barebones sympathy, for a group of people who helped ruin the economy in one story, for a man who's ruined his life on all fronts in the other. Then they throw you into the deep end of urgency and fear, knowing there are few possible satisfying outcomes for the situation at hand, confident you won't look away. Unless you're asleep you'll find that option pretty much impossible.