I had high hopes for Lost River. Not only is it the directorial debut of one of my favorite actors, Ryan Gosling, but it was also booed at Cannes. Some of the best and most interesting films ever made have been booed at Cannes. The reviews that I had read of Lost River indicated that the film was a mess but it was, at the very least, a visually intriguing mess. I was expecting the film to be pure style over substance but you know what? I like style.
So, with all that in mind, I finally got a chance to sit down and watch Lost River last night and … bleh. It’s not a terrible film. You can watch it and feel that Ryan Gosling does have some promise as a director, if not as a writer. (Along with directing, he also wrote the film’s screenplay.) There are some nicely surreal images, though almost all of them appear to have been borrowed from other better films and, as a result, even the strangest of images are rather familiar. (To be truly impressed by Lost River, it helps to have never seen anything directed by Mario Bava, Dario Argento, David Lynch, or Terrence Malick.) He gets a memorably unhinged performance from the great Ben Mendelsohn but then again, when hasn’t Mendelsohn given a memorably unhinged performance?
Anyway, Lost River takes place in Detroit, presumably because Detroit features a lot of dilapidated neighborhoods that look interesting on film and allow Gosling to pretend that his film is about America urban decay. Billy (Christina Hendricks) is on the verge of losing her house but, with the help of sleazy bank manager Dave (Ben Mendelsohn), Billy gets a job working as a performer at a club. At the club, she and Cat (Eva Mendes) perform elaborate routines which always end with them pretending to die in some excessively brutal and bloody way. The club’s largely affluent audience loves it. Dave loves it so much that he’s inspired to sing a song on stage. Later on in the film, Dave does an elaborate dance because every independent film has to feature an out-of-nowhere elaborate dance.
Meanwhile, Billy’s son, Bones (Iain De Caestecker), is trying to raise money to save the house by stealing copper out of abandoned buildings. However, this gets him in trouble with Bully (Matt Smith, struggling to speak with an American accent), a psychopath who has declared his section of Detroit to be “Bullytown.” Bully rides around in a convertible, sitting on a throne that’s been attached to the back seat. When Bully discovers that Bones has been stealing copper from buildings in Bullytown, Bully declares that Bones must die.
(At some point, you have to wonder if Bully was doomed from the minute that his parents decided to name him Bully. Maybe if they had named him The Doctor, he could have lived a very different life.)
Living next door to Billy and Bones is Rat (Saorise Ronan, who gives a good performance and deserves better than this role). Rat is called Rat because she owns a pet rat that’s named Nick. Got all that? Rat also lives with her grandmother (Barbara Steele), who never speaks but spends all of her time watching old home movies. Why would you cast an icon like Barbara Steele and then not allow her to do anything other than sit in a chair and silently stare at a television?
If Lost River was just an exercise in pure style, I probably would have enjoyed it a lot more. I would much rather a film be too obscure as opposed to being too obvious. Unfortunately, while Gosling the director is having a lot of fun being as stylish as he can be, Gosling’s the screenwriter proves himself to be heavy-handed and patronizing. By setting the film in Detroit and having random characters show up to talk about how America is dying and the poor are getting poorer while the rich get richer, Gosling lets us know that Lost River is meant to be more than just an exercise in technique.
The problem is that, as well-intentioned as Gosling may be, you can’t help but get the feeling that he has absolutely no idea what it’s like to be poor or what it’s like to live in a dying American city. According to the 2010 census, 82.7% of Detroit’s population is African-American. If you’re making a movie the deals, no matter how strangely, with what it’s like to be poor and desperate in Detroit, why would you decide to exclusively cast affluent-looking Caucasians in all of the main roles? The few black characters who appear in Lost River are largely there to either comfort or share wisdom with the main white characters before then quickly moving on, never to be seen again after their minute or so of screen time. It comes across as being condescending in only the way something written by a wealthy white guy can be.
Lost River is a misfire, an attempt by a filmmaker to try to make a statement about something that he really doesn’t seem to know much about. Judging from the film’s visuals, Gosling has some promise as a director but, in the future, he should probably try to work with a better screenwriter. If you don’t listen to the dialogue and just consider the film as an exercise in visuals, it’s mildly diverting. (That said, even the nonstop parade of surreal images gets boring after a while.) Lost River is not terrible. It’s just bleh.