We all know Robert Redford too well. We know that, after nearly 50 years on the big screen, Redford the man is not an investigative journalist, a gadabout sidekick or a dark-horse power hitter. He is, however, a mildly eccentric and reclusive celebrity, one who might very well undertake a solo sailing trip around the world. As the only actor in All Is Lost, he does just that, with his yacht, Virginia Jean, bobbing gently in the Indian Ocean.

Then, wood cracks and water rushes in. A shipping container has punched a hole in the hull, destroying the GPS and radio. It's the first in a series of misfortunes and mistakes that darken the tenor of All Is Lost, despite its protagonist's unflappable demeanor. He does his best to patch the hole, but it's Redford vs. the world from here on out. The autobiographical parallels are striking, which is perhaps the reason Redford is out of the director's chair and working with newbie J.C. Chandor, a onetime director of TV commercials who became a rising star after 2011's Margin Call. That movie thrilled with 24 hours inside an investment firm's meltdown; All Is Lost does the same with much less.

Stripped down to just two lines of dialogue—"Fuck!" and "Help me!"—Redford is front and center in an abundance of tight shots. When he inadvertently sails into a tropical storm, he's thrown about as he attempts to keep the boat afloat, and every wrinkle on his face moans in exhaustion. Amazingly, he keeps his cool—even sternly opening a yellowed copy of Celestial Navigation for Yachtsmen to page one—even as the sharks circle below.

As the storm worsens, though, so do the special effects. The heavy rain is obviously hose-powered and green-screened, and I giggled, imagining a soggy Redford turning toward the camera and yelling, "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night!" It would be his first appearance on SNL, an awkward break in a long streak of seriousness, much like this moment in the film.

But All Is Lost quickly regains its tension, and it intrigues both as a cinematic experiment and as a vehicle for Redford's naturalistic acting. Critics who have seen the film as an allegory for capitalism ignore the story's deep simplicity: That's a shipping container crashing into Redford's yacht, not some thinly veiled symbol of consumerism. This is one man, alone, facing death. Redford is playing himself, and he's not playing around.

Critic's Grade: B

SEE IT: All Is Lost is rated PG-13. It opens Friday at Fox Tower.