Robert Redford’s Greatest Performance Might Not Be What You Think

Robert Redford from All Is Lost, photo courtesy Lionsgate trailer

Robert Redford announced a couple of days ago that he’s retiring from acting at the age of 81. He’ll appear in The Old Man & the Gun this fall, but that’s it, he says. Probably.

“Never say never, but I pretty well concluded that this would be it for me in terms of acting, and [I’ll] move towards retirement after this ’cause I’ve been doing it since I was 21,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “I thought, Well, that’s enough. And why not go out with something that’s very upbeat and positive?”

For a good chunk of the 1960s and ’70s, Redford was arguably Hollywood’s most handsome leading man. And when people look back at Redford’s six decades worth of work, they naturally turn back to Redford’s heyday and can point to his classic, iconic performances in such movies as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, The Way We Were, The Great Gatsby and so many others. Others might point to his mid-1980s resurgence in The Natural and Out of Africa.

But for me, Redford’s greatest turn came much, much later. In 2013’s All Is Lost.

The movie is all Redford: He’s the only person on screen, in fact. Playing a character known only as “Our Man,” Redford operates a small-but-tastefully-outfitted yacht, sailing the wide open ocean alone. We don’t know much about him, really—where he’s been, where he’s going. We only know where he is: On the open sea, utterly alone. And when his boat springs a leak, that’s some bad, bad news for Our Man.

For the rest of the film, Our Man struggles to simply survive out there, working to patch his boat, fix his radio, find a way to save himself. One of the few words uttered in the entire film is a primal f-word, screamed in frustration. (Honestly, if I was in as equally perilous position, I might utter a few choice words myself.)

In snippets of letters, we hear hints of his backstory: How he feels he failed his family in so many ways. That he’d not been as loving as he could’ve been.

We get the sense that, long before he boarded his boat, Our Man still lived and moved very much alone.

All Is Lost works as a tremendous, daring story of peril and adventure, but it’s also a metaphor for how he, and so many of us, live lives alone. We pride ourselves on our self-reliance. We don’t like asking for help. Sometimes, we shove away the people who care for us most in our own pride and self-security.

Sometimes, only when we’re sinking, do we ever reach for help. And so Our Man finally does—the moment when all seems lost indeed.

In my review of the film, I wrote this for Plugged In:

All Is Lost is not a Christian movie, [but] there’s something spiritually profound in the fact that, for all of Our Man’s laudable efforts to save himself, in the end he needs help, someone else to save him—a hand from above, reaching out to pull him from his isolation and disaster.

As Christians, we believe that that saving hand is ultimately God’s. But it can come from people around us too, as it does here. We can’t live this life alone. We need community. We need help. We need friends and family to pick us up when we’re down—sometimes very literally.

If you haven’t seen All Is Lost—and gathering from the $6.2 million it made in theaters, that’s a lot of you—it’s worth a look. Redford is at his very best, and the story sticks. It’s available to stream on Hulu or Amazon Prime for free right now. You won’t be disappointed.

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