ALL IS LOST–Robert Redford’s latest as a man alone and adrift at sea– plays like an extended Viagra commercial.  You know– older, handsome outdoorsman testing  his mettle against the elements; there’s a broken mast involved. I know, I know. It’s Redford–and there’s already Oscar buzz about this performance and this movie. Well, I know what this film might want to be–but it never becomes a cohesive whole.

Redford stars solo, identified only as “Our Man,” a golden-haired, craggy, but still elegant looking nameless sailor who wakes up one day to find the ocean seeping into his yacht; it has been perforated and remains snagged on the rusty corner of what is at first framed up to look like a dock. We soon realize it’s a giant shipping container full of sneakers, tethered to nothing in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

Ah, I’m thinking, this is getting existential. We know almost nothing about the sailor, who he is, where he’s going, where he’s coming from, or why–when suddenly, he collides with a random piece of truly pedestrian floating cargo that ends up precipitating what might be this “everyman’s” demise. There’s also some subtext about errant, faceless capitalism as various monolithic, cargo-stuffed shipping freighters sail by, oblivious to the mariner’s plight. He also eats various cans of “organic” food, and because all his technology has been ruined, he is reduced to navigating by the stars.

But what happens is a rather blunt series of increasingly dire and predictable events, requiring all of this sailor’s skills, patience, strength, and ingenuity–but evoking no resonance. Young writer/director J.C. Chandor (of the excellent Oscar nominated MARGIN CALL) calls on Our Man to go about doing what has to be done, rather methodically, but the actor doesn’t give us much indication of his emotional temperature. We see he’s experienced and resourceful, and certainly vigorous in his attempts to fix the boat, hoist himself aloft, and weather the inevitable storm. Except for an initial voice/over– to whom it is not clear–Redford utters barely a sound until he screams one elongated expletive at the film’s climax, and it seems to take everything he’s got as an actor to propel that monosyllable into the salt sea air.

Whereas, Tom Hanks’ performance in CASTAWAY remains textbook on actorly expressivity (he made cracking open a coconut compelling), Redford’s stoicism in similar circumstances remains impenetrable; he evinced no response in me–not emotional, not intellectual. I was foiled at every turn. The actor at 77 has never been the most emotive performer. Not much has changed. He still looks vital and dashing, but beyond the physical effort he expends in what turns out to be a life and death situation, he left me wanting. In fact, whenever Redford did “react,” it seemed contrived, though he did very little.

Redford would have done better in the hands of a more visionary director, a poet who might have turned the actor’s remoteness into something mysterious and eternal. Instead, most of the action is framed medium to tight; occasionally, the camera goes for the larger view to place our man in context, either from below, or once from above. But that larger context never suggests the limitless void. The camera work is obvious and tedious (the same sequence repeated to signal an oncoming storm), more suggestive of a man trapped in a small corner of the world and frustrated by his proximity but invisibility to the ships passing by.

In one instance, the action is downright confusing. Somewhere in the middle of being tossed about, the scene suddenly cuts to our man asleep then waking up. I have no idea what has transpired. Has he died and is the rest of the film a dream?  Or was it just a clumsy edit? If this is a survival tale, why doesn’t he try to save the radio, etc. first? And where– as one of my readers (thank you Vicki!) points out– is the oar with which every life raft is equipped?

So, is ALL IS LOST meant to be a tale of physical survival and mortality? Or a meditation on the nature of existence? Or a real life drama about man’s inhumanity to man–politically? Romantically? (It seems Our Man has disappointed someone and has written a letter apologizing about something). Or is it ALL of these things? In any case– the director/writer needs a coherent vision- and a more expansive visual vocabulary to accommodate and express it.

As for the ending? I won’t give it away, nor can I– because I have no idea what happened. The final moments are certainly open to interpretation, but none of the possibilities are completely justified by the text– in this case, by what the filmmaker and actor have laid before us. We are left out there on that ocean, oddly–high and dry.