Lost River June 20, 2015
Lost River is the kind of critical failure that reserves the right to a shrug rather than a mean-spirited pan. It isn’t a good movie, but it isn’t careless like a Transformers sequel or a hasty DreamWorks greenlight. It’s the worst kind of bad film: work of a major trying and failing, like late-period De Palma or old age Argento. It is the directorial debut of Ryan Gosling, the man behind all those mysterious ovary explosions ever since The Notebook came out in 2004. He’s a terrific actor, and, in a few years, I suspect he will also be a terrific director. But Lost River feels like the work of someone who doesn’t quite know their filmmaking voice yet. Too much of the film is reminiscent of David Lynch, Wong Kar-Wai, Mario Bava; never does it have a personality completely its own. It either feels like mildly successful homage or exploitation fuckery that does nothing besides flatline in its own unpleasantness. A shame.
Yet, you don’t leave Lost River with a bad taste in your mouth; you leave slightly disappointed (and perhaps revolted) but hopeful when considering Gosling’s directorial future. It’s evident he likes Lynch, sure, but every shot is composed with noticeable mastery. Confidence wanders through every image. I’m not so sure he should direct his own material — there’s a feeling that Gosling is trying too hard to seem hallucinatory, to seem wildly unpredictable — but he sets scenes with such surefire, atmospheric style that style doesn’t even seem like the right word. The sexy heat of Lost River is magnificent.
But style can only work if it is attached to substance that bears some sort of commotion, some sort of magnetism, and that’s where Lost River fails. It doesn’t have much by way of story — mother Christina Hendricks works at a enigmatic would-be snuff nightclub to pay the bills while her older son Iain De Caestecker, a scrappy loner courting (?) a raven-haired Saoirse Ronan, runs from vengeful skinhead Matt Smith — and it seems that Gosling would prefer to use his actors as props to his images instead of nailed down characters. David Lynch always got away with stuff like that because his films had a great sense of twisted humor, and the characters were never anything besides over-the-top. In Lost River, nothing besides the images make an impression. And when some of the images are horrific, disgust feels more gratuitous because there is nothing to back it up besides the very idea of shocking the audience.
But potential often washes out the weaker moments of Lost River. The smutty club where Hendricks’ character works, in which burlesque performers get faux murdered (though it looks real) for sick audience pleasure, is grotesque yet strangely intoxicating, and the idea of placing hard-knock-life drama at the center of a labyrinthine world is ingenious and mostly fruitful. Best is the actual Lost River, or, as I should say, Lost City; the plot thickens when it is discovered that the valley of the nameless town was purposely flooded by a dam, leaving homes and a dinosaur amusement park underwater. The revelation causes a great deal of wonder, and the climax, which finds De Caestecker swimming through its ruins, is gorgeously filmed.
All faults aside, Lost River is not nearly as bad as it was made out to be. It was ravaged by critics and was wholeheartedly booed at its festival premiere, but I don’t see a failure here: I see potential wrapped in a tidy package of personality confusion. Once Gosling gets a hold of what he wants to say and how he wants to say it, then, then, he will make a film worth something. One can only hope he can recover from the understandably hurtful reception and go back to the drawing board. C