In his late seventies, Robert Redford has never held the camera as magnificently as he does in the survival-at-sea thriller All Is Lost, and it’s not just because he’s the only person in the movie. It’s because solitude is his natural state. He plays an unnamed man forced to solve a series of increasingly urgent problems when a discarded shipping container in the middle of the Indian Ocean rips a hole in his yacht. Redford doesn’t yammer like Sandra Bullock in this month’s other drifting-toward-doom picture, Gravity. Apart from a farewell letter (read in voice-over) in the prologue, he doesn’t utter a syllable until the last twenty minutes or so. But Redford is one of the few actors who can think convincingly onscreen, and the film is designed so that his thinking is the whole show. You watch his eyes flick back and forth as he takes the measure of the space, ties knots, drops sails, and plots charts. You marvel at his equilibrium. And then you see how, as his prospects darken, his sense of mastery—his supreme self-containment—erodes, how emotion finally rises to the surface. For once, Redford stops thinking.
As he proved in his debut, Margin Call, writer-director J. C. Chandor has a penchant for brainy, procedural disaster pictures. Few of those make the imaginative leaps of great art, but they can be enormously satisfying—and, when they’re in sync with a star’s personality, penetrating. Redford looks craggy and weathered, but that’s been true since he started spending most of his time at 12,000-plus feet above sea level on the slopes. In the ways that matter, he looks younger onscreen than he has in a quarter-century.
Full engagement will do that for an actor—and the sad truth is that Redford is rarely engaged by other actors. He did gaze with love on Paul Newman, and, in The Way We Were, that force of Jewish nature Barbra Streisand managed to rock his Waspy reticence like the storm surge does in All Is Lost. But in most other films, he looks as if he’s edging for the exit, which is why he was such a nonstarter as Jay Gatsby: He couldn’t project a longing for the woman who’d complete him. Here, it’s that sense of self-sufficiency that will be tested—maybe unto death.
All Is Lost is a parable, and Chandor pushes it too far with the man’s last decision: The timing is bizarre and the framing too self-consciously mythical. But everything else goes swimmingly. All Is Lost can be classified as yet another piece of Motion-Sickness Cinema, but for once the style is integral. The camera rocks with the creaks, cracks, and other sounds of encroaching disequilibrium, while an actor in his element anchors your gaze—and gives the performance of his life.
Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, published in 1853, is an even-toned but acid account of unimaginable horror: how, in 1841, a pair of traveling showmen lured him from his home and family in Saratoga Springs, New York, with the promise of fast money in return for playing the violin; how they drugged and sold him to slavers in Washington, D.C.; and how he quickly learned that assertions of his true identity only got him beaten harder. Northup has a roving intelligence and curiosity. He even stops to explain what cotton picking and sugar harvesting entail. His first master, Ford, was a “kind, noble, Christian man” who nonetheless “never doubted the moral right of one man holding another in subjection.” His final one, Epps, was an alcoholic and a psychopath. “He is known,” Northup writes, “as a ‘nigger-breaker,’ distinguished for the faculty of subduing the slave … He looked upon a colored man not as a human being … but as … mere live property, no better, except in value, than his mule or dog.”
Steve McQueen, the director of the wildly acclaimed adaptation, 12 Years a Slave, has a specialty: He likes to fix his camera on a person in extremis—starving to death in Hunger, shaming himself sexually in Shame, and now being tortured by monstrous white slavers in the South. His shots are high-toned, mythic, frieze-dried. They’re intended to induce claustrophobia, physical and existential. McQueen’s images have considerable power, and I’d watch his films less guardedly if I thought he were searching for something more than his characters’ reactions to extreme degradation. In this case, at least, he has found a milieu in which a feeling of entrapment should—and does—permeate every frame.
The painterly malignancy is unrelenting. Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) stands in prison awaiting his sale, and his white shirt glows like the central Inquisition martyr’s in Goya’s Third of May. As each new white character is introduced, we’re apt to search his or her face for a sign of compassion or empathy, only to be walloped by the general inhumanity—as Solomon is literally walloped by a hitherto avuncular-looking Paul Giamatti. The benevolent Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) only half-rises to defend his slaves’ humanity before fearfully settling back into the status quo. But life is far worse when Solomon arrives at his final plantation: the house of Epps (Michael Fassbender) and his Gorgon of a wife (Sarah Paulson), whose overriding goal is to see her husband’s prized slave mistress, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), suffer.