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The late Paul Newman said it took him decades to learn the secret of film acting: Less is more. With a director and editor focusing our attention onto coordinates of the big screen, it’s not necessary for an actor to showboat.

Newman’s camera-friendly cohort Robert Redford has never been mistaken for a method-acting hambone. In the wilderness-survival flick “Jeremiah Johnson,” he had about 30 lines of dialogue. But that 1972 film is “My Dinner With Andre” compared to his new sinking-ship adventure “All Is Lost.”

After a voice-over prelude in which the solo skipper pens a letter of apology to his family, the only two lines of dialogue for the next 100 minutes are distress calls from the sailboat’s radio.

We never learn the yachtsman’s name, nor the source of the wealth that allows him to sail across the Indian Ocean, but he’s clearly a resourceful fellow. When he awakens after a storm to find that a trailer-size shipping container has punched a hole in the side of the boat, he doesn’t rant or panic. He pumps the water from the galley, dries his bedside books and mixes a patching compound to seal the breach.

As the condition of the leak worsens, he is logical about employing the timeless tools of a mariner — maps and a sextant to steer him toward the shipping lanes — and unsentimental about chucking his physical and psychological baggage.

Like a Jack London story without a wolf or “Life of Pi” without the tiger, “All Is Lost” is an elemental story of man against nature. We get the predictable plot points — storms, sharks, close calls with passing ships — but it feels like a uniquely handmade artifact.

This very male and methodical movie is like the anti-“Gravity,” as the un-moored hero is quietly in control of his options and at peace with his possible failure.

Because the sailor is torpedoed by a cargo of cheap Chinese sneakers, and because director J. C. Chandor’s previous film was the Wall Street thriller “Margin Call,” it’s tempting to search this seafaring adventure for ripples of social significance. But when a task-at-hand survival story is this solid, and when its star is this commanding, deeper meaning is a luxury that gets jettisoned.


What “All Is Lost” • Three stars out of four • Rating PG-13 • Run time 1:46 • Content Brief strong language • Where Plaza Frontenac

Joe Williams is the film critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.