If you’ve heard of Lost River then you already know not to see it. Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut has been the subject of much ridicule and barely-concealed smirks. It was booed by everyone at Cannes supposedly. That doesn’t mean much; they boo anything at Cannes. Cannes would boo your wedding video. But it was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and from there the streams of one star reviews came flooding in, followed shortly by the humiliating ordeal of Universal trying to sell off the rights to the film within days, resulting in a cinematic release in just two US cities. Yet if you were to bother digging it out from video on demand services, where Lost River saw its only wide release; you’d discover it’s nowhere near as bad as you’ve heard.
Lost River is set in Detroit, an object of much obsession for the Canadian director; but really occupies something of a dreamlike visage of urban decay – where old neighbourhoods are literally submerged beneath the water, and its remaining families are pimped out by means of theft and debasement. In it Billy (Christina Hendrix) and son Bones (Ian De Caestecker) go their separate ways in order to raise the money for a three-month debt which is threatening the imminent destruction of their home. That’s as far as the plot goes: there’s barely a resolution and most of the film passes as a series of moments, powerful and dynamic but doing so through no means other than their visual impact – for the narrative barely exists and neither do the characters. We empathise with their struggle as we would any person in their situation, not because we actually know or like them. But Gosling demonstrably doesn’t care to make the kind of movie with a storyline – he wants to capture a mood and a moment and commit to screen many a striking allegory, and succeeds in his quest. That doesn’t make for the most satisfying experience, but Lost River is never boring and more often than not the scenes are boldly manifested. There have been claims that it’s nothing more than style over substance but that’s not the case – if anything Goslings commentary on urban decay and the facets of its disintegration are too unsubtle, but it’s clear that something is being said here, between the pretty pictures.
What Gosling seems to miss however is a regard for emotions beside memorability: that the traumas these people are put through would mean twice as much had some of the dream-like quality of Lost River been diluted with scenes that developed the characters, filled in their backstories and aspirations. Mother and son Bones and Billy barely share a scene for example, which is surely a misstep for a family drama. If they’d have had an established connection then the many striking moments that occur throughout the film would punch twice as hard. It’s true: it would be harder to maintain the reverie mood should such scenes of everyday life and conversation exist but a more convincing work would have included them. It may have also evened out some very noticeable pacing issues. Balancing the abstract and a strong narrative is the hard part: and that’s likely why such an imbalance exists here, but it’s worth striving for, as that’s really all that holds this film back.
One of the main complaints of many is that Gosling didn’t so much as wear his influences on his sleeves but rob the shirts of their backs – and indeed the impact of mentor Nicolas Winding-Refn and David Lynch on the filmmaker are quite evident. The images we see are nobody’s but Goslings though, and nearly every frame in Lost River is gorgeous. Gaspar Noe’s preferred cinematographer Benoit Debie imbues the club scenes with neon prettiness and indeed they are pulled into a cohesive whole – it’s not like it cuts from Lynchian monotone to Refn’s slow zoom garishness, Gosling’s through-line pervades. Luckily we are also spared the Refn’s penchant for gore – when the club Billy arrives at is revealed to be one for blood fetishists it came off like a bad joke, but mostly the violence in Lost River is kept to the fake blood, and the satire lands.
Another credit to Gosling as a new director is that he can certainly get the most from his actors. Since their bodies are largely props which exist amongst his cinematic tableauxs, he was lucky he was able to snag actors who could express so much with so little. Christina Hendrix is magnetic as Billy, although she often has little more to work with than angst. The villains steal the show though: Matt Smith is fantastic as inventively named thug Bully; as Gosling understands the means of writing an interesting antagonist – had Jason Statham played the role things would get rather clichéd, but with a scrawny Smith ruling the roost urging Billy to ‘look at my muscles!’ with a lisp and a disco ball bomber jacket – the character is enthrallingly surreal. Interesting also is Dave, the near-deaf bank manager whose impairment allows him to lean uncomfortably close to Billy in every scene, and bursts into an impromptu dance not once, but twice in the movie.
Lost River then is as difficult to handle as the dreamlike world it conveys: frustrating in parts, mostly directionless, but filled with potential and plenty of interesting ideas. Any doubts of sincerity on the part of Gosling seem completely unfounded – perhaps he does borrow a little too liberally from his influences but he also strives for authenticity. One actress for example was not cast at all – she was a passing Detroit resident who Smith spotted on set and brought into the scene. One does not make a fraudulent product while trying so hard to represent its roots. It’s a modern fairy-tale, with a depleted city in the place of a crooked forest. Lost River isn’t the first to do it but it is the most committed to the idea; and Gosling is clearly entranced by the concept. He’s said to be eager to start his next project, and in his debut movie he did indeed do a great job in building such a world, and making it feel real in every moment. Hopefully next time he’ll come up with a story to take place in it.
Theodore J. Inscoe