Fall 2013 is the season of the ordeal movie. The protagonists of some of the most acclaimed new films do not have the customary goals of getting the girl or saving the planet. They want to stay alive under awful obstacles and will use all their gifts and grace toward that end. Sandra Bullock in outer space in Gravity, Tom Hanks in a lifeboat with pirates in Captain Phillips, Chiwetel Ejiofor kidnapped and taken to a Southern plantation in 12 Years a Slave—all face huge odds against their survival. The greatest challenge is to keep from surrendering to despair, especially when that might seem a welcome option to continuing the impossible struggle.
Of this season’s desperate, dogged heroes, only the nameless protagonist of J.C. Chandor’s thrilling, uplifting All Is Lost has no one to count on, to confer with, but himself. Sailing the Indian Ocean alone on his 39-foot yacht, 1,700 nautical miles from the Sumatra straits, he awakens one morning to the sound of crunching metal: a shipping container that fell off a cargo ship has struck his boat, perforating and flooding it, disabling all communication. The man fights resourcefully to repair the damage and battle the elements: blistering sun, a violent storm. After eight debilitating days, with only a half-day’s worth of rations left and virtually no hope for rescue, it seems that all is lost.
(READ: TIME.com reviews of Gravity, Captain Phillips and 12 Years a Slave)
All Is Lost strips the conventional action movie to its essentials: one confined setting, virtually no dialogue and a man with only the sailing skills and self-determination to make a go of survival. His boat is called the Virginia Jean, but he is the man with no name, with no knowable past, no loved ones or enemies back home to give his quest familiar emotional moorings. In a way, the writer-director set himself and his audience the same restrictions as his protagonist. They would discover who the man is by what he can do. And by who plays him: Robert Redford.
(READ: Mary Corliss on Robert Redford’s The Company You Keep)
All Is Lost, which had its world premiere at Cannes in May and opens in U.S. theaters this weekend, stocks its 105 minutes with enough seafaring challenges and adventure to keep mainstream audiences fascinated, fraught and rooting for the person identified in the closing credits as “Our Man.” Yet it is also an arguably unique exercise in storytelling: both a work of cinematic innovation and an exhilarating demonstration of the ancient maxim that action is character.
Other films about a man alone on the water look positively profligate by comparison. Spencer Tracy played a Cuban fisherman in 1958’s The Old Man and the Sea, but he was on land with others at the beginning and the end. In 1963, Japanese director Kon Ichikawa retold the true story of a man who sailed from Osaka to San Francisco in Alone on the Pacific; there, flashbacks provided clues to his reasons for attempting this feat. Most recently, Ang Lee’s Life of Pi put a teenage boy on a raft in the Pacific after 40 minutes of exposition about his family and the tiger that would accompany him. All Is Lost dispenses with land, friends, flashbacks and tigers. Our Man doesn’t talk to himself, let alone to a volleyball. He has his own company; that must be enough. And because he is played by Redford, it is more than enough.
(READ: Richard Corliss’s review of Life of Pi)
For all the screen time the actor has spent gazing meaningfully into the receptive eyes of Natalie Wood, Jane Fonda, Barbra Streisand, Faye Dunaway, Meryl Streep and, first and finest, Paul Newman, Redford has always projected a curious self-sufficiency. The characters he has played seemed to enjoy people’s company but not to need it. He embraced solitude on the slopes (Downhill Racer), in the mountains (Jeremiah Johnson) and on a ranch (The Horse Whisperer). Even in a crowd he could be alone; the political advisers in The Candidate, the ballplayers in The Natural, were white noise that barely penetrated the cocoon of his mystery. The California blond with the calculating brain was a separate species, independent of and perhaps impatient with the mass of mortals. In the harshest elements, he could survive on his own.
(READ: The 1974 cover story on Robert Redford and The Great Gatsby by subscribing to TIME)
Chandor, whose previous feature, 2011’s Margin Call, was primarily chatter and bustle, proves himself to be a master of visual detail as Our Man sets to healing his boat like an expert surgeon with the death clock ticking. But the real coup was casting and trusting Redford, the lone star who brings to the job all the vigor of his 77 years and all the acting wisdom of a half-century in films.
(READ: Mary Pols’ review of J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call)
Redford isn’t nearly done taking on new challenges; next year he will appear in his first comic-book action epic, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. In this film, however, he battles the elements and mortality with a thinking man’s resilience the equal of any astronaut, freighter captain or free man enslaved. That he fights fate on his own makes All Is Lost a signal film achievement and the capstone to a great star’s career. This is Ultimate Redford.