The classic image of existentialism is the image of Jean-Paul Satre drifting down a river, alone of an ice floe, appearing helpless against the environment but still in possession of his intellect and ingenuity. The image applies equally to Redford, who is the victim of bad luck but bounces back thru sheer ingenuity. First, his sailboat is disabled, then further damaged in a storm, before sinking, just as Redford steps into a floating raft, where he stays until the movie’s surprise ending.
Unknowingly, we watch Redford progress thru the five stages of dying made famous in Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s 1969 classic On Death and Dying. First, Redford went into denial – how could a cargo container puncture a hole in his sailboat in the middle of the Indian Ocean? What are the odds? Then, he become angry – why me? The third step is bargaining, where Redford merely becomes pensive in the movie, suggesting a lack of spirituality in his life. But, if the third step was short for Redford, the fourth step of depression consumes most of his time in the raft, as ships pass closely but without seeing him. The final and most important step is acceptance, when hope is lost and the release of death becomes a better option than the continued burden of life. After accidentally setting his raft on fire, while signalling a distant light on the horizon, he finds himself alone in the dark waters, accepts his fate, and slips below the surface.
Only the Hollywood-dictated “happy ending” keeps this movie from existential greatness.
This movie is so different. The singular focus is on one speechless person. That speechless person allows us to insert our own thoughts and emotions. It doesn’t tell a story. It shows the story. It shows the emotional progression of dying . . . maybe not alone on an ice floe, but certainly against a hostile environment that overwhelms both intellect and ingenuity.