Cruising the Indian Ocean on his yacht the Virginia Jean, our unnamed central character (Redford) awakens one morning to water flowing into his cabin. He has sailed into an abandoned supply container, which has caused a serious dent in the side. He quickly and efficiently sets to work; separating his yacht from the container, temporarily repairing the damage, sapping up the water from within and rescuing anything he can. Content with his solution he starts to sail on. But, this setback has perhaps delayed his journey and he finds himself in the middle of the ocean with a fierce storm bearing down on him. His proud vessel soon becomes nature’s ragdoll and an irreparable capsize proves to be the first of many hardships to follow. Throughout the story we never leave Redford’s side – accompanying him to the top of his masts and to the depths of the ocean - nor are we ever introduced to another character. The dialogue is minimal, and yet so much is conveyed through Chandor’s patient direction and intelligent script, Redford’s weathered face and the compelling intricacies of the sets and production design.
While we are riveted to what happens to Redford’s character out on the water, Chandor at the same time challenges us to decipher this man. We are given no context but thrown straight into his life at this precise moment. Who is he? What circumstances in his life have brought him out onto the sea alone? Where have his calm consideration, hardened psychological endurance and significant nautical experience come from? Despite his age, he is clearly in pretty decent shape and despite his mounting frustrations, methodically takes appropriate measures time and again. As he clings to a dwindling sense of hope and a few meager supplies, we see him begin to emotionally break as the odds stack against him. In the audience I was biting my nails and fearing the worst.
I took it that this man has already given up everything (his family, a job) - perhaps lost it – before we even meet him. He has put everything he has into setting up this yacht, and it has clearly become the centre of his world. As a mobile home, it is stocked with everything he needs to live - and even some equipment he never expected to use. Perhaps, to an extent, he even desired the dangers such an adventure would offer? He’s a fascinating human being.
Technically, this is an amazing work. The photography is especially commendable. Whether quietly observing Redford as he busies himself solving his various problems, battling the torrential rain alongside Redford or observing the raft’s immense isolation from above and below, there is never any doubt about the authenticity of what we are watching. During the storm sequences, I began to wonder how they were even filmed. The fusion of sound and image is also incredibly sharp. Alex Ebert’s score is sparsely used, but natural sounds, like the ominous approach of thunder, and the creaking of a slowly sinking vessel heighten the suspense.
Redford was such inspired casting here. His handsome younger-man features are all-but gone, and he hasn’t delivered a memorable performance for quite some time. As this stubborn world-weary retiree he successfully broke my heart. There were incredible nuances to his performance, such as when he has to first choke out the vocal cobwebs before trying to communicate his radio distress, which took this performance to another level.
I wasn’t such a fan of Chandor’s previous film, Margin Call, but I loved his pacing here. Despite taking some of the visual metaphors a little far, and including some unnecessary CGI to accentuate his themes, there is so much to appreciate about this amazing film.
My Rating: ★★★★1/2