For the last decade or so, Robert Redford has dedicated himself to ventures outside the world of acting. He has nurtured his Sundance Film Festival, turning the brand into a cable channel, an institute and a distributing arm for independent films. He has also tried to be a director himself, directing mostly unsuccessful political thrillers like the Company You Keep and Lions for Lambs. When he does get the camera put in his direction, his age is apparent. I no longer see the energetic, cocky actor who was magnificent in so many sixties and seventies movies. Instead I see a man going through the motions as an iron jawed man’s man. So when I heard that he was starring in a movie where it will just be him struggling to survive on a boat, I was cautious. How can he sustain a whole movie without anyone to react to? Is he going to be even more stoic than he was in other recent movies? But you know what? I was pleasantly surprised. Redford was great.
This is an easy movie to sum up. The movie starts with Redford waking up on his small boat as it crashes into a lost storage container. It rips a huge hole in the side of his boat and his instincts to survive kick into high gear as the movie throws everything at him. He can’t get the hole seal up quite right, his electrical equipment in the boat is gone, there is a massive storm that throws him over board twice and finally he is stuck drifting on a life boat with little rations and sharks swirling around him underneath.
What is unique about this film is that there is absolutely no biographical information about this man. We don’t even know his name. So it falls on Redford to make his character sympathetic enough for the audience to not get bored. This can be a hard thing to pull off. An audience can be very fickle. If there is no emotional core or interesting plot twists than the audience will get bored and care very little about happens to your character. Redford was able to take his rugged manliness and his small facial tweaks and make me interested enough to gasp when he almost dies several times throughout the film. He is able to take a wordless performance and inject it with humanity. When someone like this sailor gets into trouble, they know that panic isn’t going to save them. What is going to save them is the knowledge on how to survive. He works tirelessly to keep his boat afloat and when he fails, it has devastating results not just on his situation but also his emotional core. This is where the film gets interesting. His wits are slowly unraveling and he has to accept that he might die. The shift comes after he wakes up on the lifeboat after his boat has been destroyed by a horrible storm. His boat is still barely a drift and he goes on the thing to grab survival tools. He gets back on the lifeboat, but has second thoughts. He goes back onto it grabs a few more things, including a box that might have sentimental value to him. This second trip almost traps him on the boat and brings him down with it. But he narrowly escapes and gets onto the lifeboat in time to witness his boat completely sink. The look on his face as this is happening is probably the best single-acting look in this whole movie. This man was obviously attached to the boat he had. They probably went on dozens of trips together and he knew the thing inside and out. His look captured a sense of loss that is probably more associated with the loss of a child. But he doesn’t mourn it. He has to keep going forward. He will think about it later, but now he must survive on a vessel that is only slightly larger than an inter tube and made of the same material.
Although this film will probably be overlooked during Oscar nomination time for more obvious performances, I feel like Robert Redford put in the best performance of the year in this film. He was subtle, interesting and strong. He was able to keep my attention even after the unrelenting problems became too much for me. He was able to get me to feel for a character that has no biographical background and little emotions. That is a feat that a lesser actor would never be able to pull off. Good job, Robert Redford. You get an A+ from the most important film critic alive! (This is obviously a true statement I just said about myself)