Release: Friday, April 10, 2015
Written by: Ryan Gosling
Directed by: Ryan Gosling
On a scale of crypticness, Lost River sits right in between the obtuseness of garden variety Terrence Malick and Ryan Gosling’s second collaboration with Nicolas Winding Refn, though the distances are pretty great on either side. It doesn’t come close to even appearing to profess thematic profundity like Malick’s work, though it doesn’t share a disdain for accessibility quite like Only God Forgives.
Given a chance to have full artistic control of his own project, Gosling proves his oddness runs deeper than his strong-but-silent types as of late, for Lost River is its own world, one which few are likely going to want to visit anytime soon. Rampant with poverty, violence and haunting (haunted?) characters, the titular town epitomizes economic collapse. It’s a ghost town strewn with a few souls still desperately hanging on to life. A horror film in which reality has been forsaken for surreality and an oppressive sense of hopelessness. If it sounds like I enjoyed this piece, it’s because I did.
Then again, for all its indulgences in style and a plethora of other barricades to most reasonable viewers, maybe ‘enjoyed’ is the wrong term. For a time I sat in awe of what Gosling was trying to express through a melange of vivid, bizarre images comprised mostly of things on fire and buildings being swallowed up by natural environs. That was before I tired of drinking in admittedly gorgeous visuals, my brain thirsting instead for real, useful information. Around 30 minutes in Gosling’s inexperience writing a story and directing it with focus and purpose becomes all too evident.
Some semblance of story revolves around single mother Billy (Christina Hendricks) and her son Bones (Iain de Caestecker), scrambling for the money to keep a roof over their heads. Billy is told by a corrupt bank manager (Ben Mendelsohn) that he knows of a way she can cover at least the next three months’ payments, but she’ll have a hard time saving face — almost literally — by taking up this unscrupulous offer. Meanwhile, Bones goes searching for scrap copper wiring from which he hopes to earn whatever cash he can by selling it to a junkyard. Or is that a cleverly concealed graveyard for anyone who has tried to make something of themselves in this place?
Bones is more successful instigating the ire of the psychotic Bully (Dr. Who‘s Matt Smith) who gets a thrill from parading through the town, terrorizing anyone within earshot (of a loudspeaker) from his armchair affixed atop a white convertible. All that’s missing from the scene is a justified second gunman on the grassy knoll. Someone please snipe this bastard. On the flip side of the coin: Billy now finds herself working at the burlesque night club from Hell, where performances, led by Eva Mendes’ Cat, emphasize realistic murders designed to titillate audiences whose tastes in entertainment would be pointless to elucidate they are so baffling. So off-putting. A seeming reflection of how most have come to regard Gosling’s directorial debut.
The kicker though, is that I don’t think my finding of that parallel is forced by some twisted means of trying to defend the film. While Lost River meanders (and it does it so much it isn’t a film to watch with the lights off I’ve found out — not so much for the nightmarish imagery but the slumber it can cast you off into) the scenes in the night club encapsulate Gosling’s obsession with distancing himself from the typical narrative package. Acquired taste? Yes. Do I smell a hint of pretentiousness here? Also, yes. But let’s, for a second, pretend that word doesn’t exist and recognize Gosling’s strengths as an actor first and foremost and quite likely as an individual second. He’s one with uncommon style, an expert on esoteric self-expression, though none of that ever fully justifies his shortcomings as director and writer.
The film ends miserably — not thematically but in terms of satisfaction — and this is where any reasonable defense similarly must come to an end. If the joke has been how ridiculously abstract a film can be made with a limited budget and even more limited experience, the punchline isn’t a punchline. Gosling fucks up the joke. I was, for the most part, humored by some of the things he was presenting in the form of the downtrodden, the sleaziness of an ever-reliable Ben Mendelsohn, the purity of Matt Smith’s mania. Or maybe I was in some weird way trying to humor him by putting myself through a film that I can’t deny is far too reminiscent of Refn, Malick and any number of established filmmakers who have made a career out of the abstract and thematically impenetrable. David Lynch seems to be cropping up often in the conversation as well.
I hope I’m not patronizing too much here by saying that Lost River is, at the very least, eye-catching. It spills forth from Gosling’s mind, a stream of consciousness showered in stark imagery that won’t disappear easily from your own.
Recommendation: Lost River represents Ryan Gosling echoing perhaps too loudly the stylistic flourishes of those he looks up to but it’s a gorgeous film and a curious one that I’d recommend to anyone who thinks Gosling and Refn have something unique to offer. And if you gave a thumbs-up to Only God Forgives, there’s no reason you won’t be able to find things to like with this one. Lost River will fail to attract many outside of those circles, though and that’s unfortunate.
Running Time: 95 mins.
Quoted: “Everyone is looking for a better life somewhere else.”
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