Andrew Pulver, The Guardian, May 22, 2013
Anyone preparing for a round the world trip on their own yacht ought to give this survival-at-sea picture a very wide berth. The message seems to be: if the Somalian pirates don't get you, sheer dumb luck, combined with hostile wind and rain, will.
Dumb luck actually comes calling via, of all things, a floating container full of children's shoes, which smashes into a boat piloted solo by Robert Redford's grizzled sailor. (In what we can only assume is a metaphorical jab, the container is rather obviously Chinese, holing this aging symbol of all-American manhood right on the waterline.) Initially Redford - whose character's name is never revealed - appears to cope quite well with the crisis: methodically cutting his boat free, patching the hole, and pumping out the water. But an opening voiceover - virtually the only dialogue in the movie, apart from the odd "Help!" or "Fuuuuck!" - lets us in on the fact that things will eventually get far, far worse.
And they do, of course. Writer-director JC Chandor's method is to show us, in unadorned, matter-of-fact sequences, the business of fending for yourself in the most isolated of surroundings, the fragility of existence ruthlessly exposed. Apart from that opening scene, Chandor resolutely avoids stage tricks - letters, soliloquies, self-directed muttering - that might, in less rigorous films, have been deployed to supply backstory or facilitate emotional empathy. Instead, we watch Redford go about his tasks with no clue as to his identity, his family (we know he has one, that's about it), or why he's floating on his own in the Indian Ocean in the first place.
On one level this pared-down strategy makes for a beautifully simple idea: we are presented with the human as animal, scrapping with the fish and sharks (occasionally seen, creepily, circling under Redford's craft). But it also makes forcefully clear the advantages of the conventions of character fleshing-out: we are never allowed inside Redford's mind, and the character remains almost entirely opaque.
That said, Redford delivers a tour de force performance: holding the screen effortlessly with no acting support whatsoever. After a period of scaling back his acting work, to accommodate directing and the Sundance festival, he now appears to be re-emerging energised. His advancing years only add to its subtlety: the difficulties he has hauling down the sail, or righting his dinghy, give his labours a frisson of fear and uncertainty a younger model would not. All may be lost for the boat, and very possibly the entire US, but on this evidence, certainly not for Redford himself.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk