Lost River is an ambitious project, but ultimately a hollow, lifeless experience.
by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)
I first started a new post on WordPress for this review on the afternoon of Saturday 18th April, shortly after the credits rolled on Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut. I then looked at the blank white box, paused for a second, looked straight down at the keyboard, paused again, then hit ‘Save Draft’ and decided I’d come back to it on the following day. “It’s the kind of film that needs mulling over first,” I explained to myself.
So, I came back to the draft the following afternoon, where I proceeded to then look at the blank box, scratch my head, then leave the tab open for most of the day without writing down a word. “I’ll try again tomorrow.”
In the intervening week I’ve been back to this review almost every day. Deleting bits, adding bits, rewriting huge chunks of it. Such is the kind of film that Lost River is that it’s taken me nearly two weeks to finish putting my thoughts into something vaguely intelligible. It’s not because I have so much to say about it, but quite the opposite. How do you write a review for a film that isn’t a just an image of yourself shrugging your shoulders?
Annoyingly, none of the alternatives immediately sprang to mind nor properly revealed themselves over the past thirteen days. Nothing that adequately explained exactly how I felt about the film quite as aptly anyway. Turning this review into a simple black and white “this bit is good, this bit is bad” conventional style post would be to paint too plain a picture of this ponderous, futuristic fantasy story.
It’s probably important to lay out some context at least before even attempting to dissect the individual elements of the neo-noir tale. What I can say straight off the bat is that it isn’t a good film. An ambitious one, highly influenced by Gosling’s work with directors like Nicolas Winding Refn and Derek Cianfrance, but lacking in the final execution of its concept.
It’s set in what appears to be the not-too-distant future, in a Detroit that was devastated by an apparent natural disaster or flood, much akin to certain parts of New Orleans post-hurricane Katrina. Billy (Christina Hendricks) and her sons Bones (Iain De Caestecker) and Franky (Landyn Stewart) remain behind as virtually everyone else gradually deserts the city. Bones spends his time looking for scrap metal to earn a pittance to help his mum save their family home. However, he soon learns to avoid his foe, the psychotic Bully (Matt Smith) who runs the slums, but he does make friends with Rat (Saoirse Ronan) who lives at home with her mute grandmother, played by the legendary Barbara Steele. With Billy struggling to pay her bills to Dave (Ben Mendehlson), the bank manager, he suggests she joins him at a bizarre violent nightclub show, before convincing her to work alongside Cat (Eva Mendes). Yeah, don’t worry, it is as weird, lucid and aimless as it sounds.
Let’s begin with the films key component: its director. Whatever the name Ryan Gosling means to you – whether it’s that kid from the Disney club, that good looking romantic film actor chap your girlfriend wishes you were, Derek Cianfrance’s apparent muse or the guy who stomped some bloke to death in that neon-soaked Nicolas Winding Refn movie – he’s one of the world’s most instantly recognisable film stars around today. Popular with critics and those in the business (receiving an Oscar nomination for Half Nelson) as well as more general film fans alike for the roles he’s played; as diverse as a cross-dressing manic potential-wife-killer in All Good Things, and presidential candidate George Clooney’s staffer embroiled in the dirty side of politics in The Ides of March. He’s young, famous, good looking and popular.
And he’s good at what he does. More than good. Great, even. He’s one of the most popular actors currently working and a major movie star for a reason. However, it’s perhaps to his credit in many ways that with his directorial debut, he resisted the temptation to cast himself in the lead role (or any role at all), as financially frugal as it may have been. Although clearly the project means a great deal to him, after all Gosling not only directed but also wrote and produced Lost River. If he were in any of the major roles, it probably would’ve ended up being another stick to beat him with. As we’ve seen other relatively young and well respected actors turn their hand to making movies after decades of starring in them, such as Joseph Gordon Levitt in Don Jon and Keanu Reeves in Man of Tai Chi, who have in turn cast themselves in a starring role, not everyone can get away with it.
The fact that Ryan Gosling is not acting in the film is not one of its problems. Instead, what for all intents and purposes ruins Lost River, leaving it as desolate and vacant as the Detroit it portrays, is its incredibly weak meandering plot. Characters are little more than one dimensional moving images, disappointingly wasting the talent of its cast. For example. casting Matt Smith as the menacing Bully was a risk that so nearly paid off, yet due to the shallow writing, leaves him as little more than a scissor-happy scally. Smith’s performance is unlike any I’ve ever seen from him before; certainly it’s a million miles away from the time lord he’s most famous for. But it just doesn’t work. Whether it’s due to his performance or an underwritten part is debatable.
The same could almost be said for every member of the cast. Ben Mendelsohn is without question the most talented member of the entire bunch, yet has barely enough to do other than act slightly odd, squandering away any gravitas or emotional depth he could have brought given a better opportunity. Much like Eva Mendes who could have been the star but is rather unceremoniously squashed into the background. Similarly, Christina Hendricks and Iain De Caestecker’s mother / son relationship was the epitome of lightweight. The best word I can think of to describe their appearances on screen together is “brief”. It’s rushed, pushed to one side, quickly skimmed through to get to more delicate images of brutal urban decay.
Which isn’t a problem strictly reserved for only this part of the film. Every line of dialogue is unnatural, which I know may seem unfair given it’s a neo- fantasy film, therefore of course it’s unrealistic. Right? Well, wrong. I’m afraid that doesn’t excuse the fact that no line is delivered in a convincing or believable manner. Stilted readings as if someone is holding up a cue card for them to read their bits from, akin to Marlon Brando in Superman, which is then cut down further in the edit so you get at most six or seven word sentences in two minute barrages between yet more (admittedly well shot) dreary bleak soulless landscapes.
Two weeks back, I thought Lost River was all right but nothing more, nothing less. Having now mulled it over, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to describe who would enjoy this or who it is meant for. Its lack of substance and nuance makes it too flimsy for an art-house crowd. The dissociated abstract nature leaves it too inaccessible for the mainstream audience. As unfortunate as it may be, it isn’t a surprise that Lost River has virtually bombed both financially and critically. If Gosling can find his own unique identity, use this project as a learning curve and come back stronger, there’s enough here to suggest it could lead to better things. Everyone has to start somewhere, right?
Lost River may have dropped out of cinemas by now, but is available for rent on VOD and released on DVD at the beginning of June.