106 minutes / Opens on February 20, 2014 / Rating: 4/5
THE story: An unnamed man (Robert Redford) on a solo sail in the Indian Ocean strikes the boat against an abandoned shipping container, disabling his vessel. One event after another hits the boat and, soon, the man is on the edge of survival.
The history of film-making is littered with exercises in minimalism, or as some put it, "pure cinema". Some work, many do not; see Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise trilogy (1995-2013) for a successful take on the the classic "two people in a room talking" example of the form. Some film-makers do it because they lack money, but talk about it as if it was a deliberate artistic choice.
Not so writer-director J.C. Chandor, who, after his acclaimed independently produced financial trader thriller Margin Call (2011), could have waited for Hollywood to come courting with promises of huge budgets and extravagant sets. Instead, he made another indie film.
Despite the lack of big studio dollars, there is nothing here that looks cheap or cheesy. Chandor, working with underwater photography specialist Peter Zuccarini and cinematographer Frank G. Demarco (whom he also worked with on Margin Call), strives for and achieves an understated realism.
There is neither amped-up maritime action nor any computer-graphics fancifulness along the lines of Life Of Pi (2012).
An occasional wide frame is used to break up the visual monotony, but Chandor stays away from modern-day cliches such as swooping helicopter shots or, worse, bottom-up shots of the hull resting on a shimmering surface as sea creatures dance beneath it.
Much of the story is carried on The Sailor's face, as he worries about his predicament, or his hands, as he tries one fix after another.
Redford's leathery but still-handsome visage carries the weight with extraordinary grace. His legendary status is mildly distracting - you can't help thinking as you watch that he was in All The President's Men (1976) and The Way We Were (1973) - but that feeling fades 10 minutes into the film as the story takes over.
While Chandor and the distributors market this as a survival story, it might be more accurate to call this a "man at work" film, one that shows in documentary-like detail how things get done, whether it be mixing glue and layering fibreglass to patch a torn hull, or the intricacies of using a sextant and map.
Chandor does not go for displays of emotion. The Sailor does not cry, pray or beg; he is a practical man who views the saving of his own life as a job like any other, one to be done through action and a stubborn stoicism.
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