I love Detroit. It’s the city that I live, and work, and it’s home to many of my favorite places and things. It’s a city that is a husk of it’s old self, but is fighting it’s way from the rubble of financial decay and bankruptcy. There’s something unique about it, and something that I find myself wanting to attach myself to. Apparently, Ryan Gosling felt this as well when he visited Detroit, so much so that he decided to use Detroit as the location, and inspiration for his first film as a director, Lost River. So needless to say I felt a connection to Lost River before I ever watched it, and it would be up to Ryan Gosling (who I am also a huge fan of), not to sever that connection.
Fans of Ryan Gosling will know that he’s been in a couple films directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive and Only God Forgives), and it’s clear right from the start that Lost River borrows many stylistic and storytelling elements from both of these, particularly the less liked Only God Forgives. It also seems to draw from some of Gosling’s preferred influences like David Lynch and Terrence Malick. The result is a somewhat surreal, bizarre and stylistic experience that can be off putting to some. Visually I thought the result was fantastic though, and really the films primary strength is in the cinematography department. There are some striking images that sear themselves into your minds eye, like burning buildings and barren streets with houses that shouldn’t be home to anyone, let alone a mother and two kids.
Unfortunately, once you look past the visual allure of the film, Lost River’s luster begins to wear off. Quickly. The film has a number of well respected actors, a couple of which are connected to Gosling in some way. The films ‘protagonist’ is played by Christina Hendricks, who Gosling worked with on Drive and of course his girlfriend Eva Mendes fills in a small role as a performer at a mysterious seedy nightclub. Neither are very good in the film, and quite frankly look like they’re just going through the motions, reading their small number of lines from a page, as if they have no context or rhythm, but are simply words that are required to move the plot along. Iain De Caestecker is very average as Hendrick’s fictional son, and Saoirse Ronan is wooden as his friend Rat. The best performances come from the manic villains, and this is by a landslide. Matt Smith is manic as Bully, a villain who appears to be a blend of a Mad Max bad guy and Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth from Blue Velvet, cutting off people’s lips and killing their pets. Ben Mendelsohn is the only real outstanding performance though, which is hardly surprising. He gives us a villain who is truly despicable and disgusting, but in a slightly more believable way. He steals the show really, and the scenes that are really worth watching generally involve him.
In terms of plot, Lost River is strange. It has what is actually a very basic and simplistic plot which you can follow without much trouble. The neighborhood is going under and they family can’t afford rent, so the mother gets involved with some bad stuff. Meanwhile the son has a similar predicament, and he seeks to break a supposed curse, which is incredibly poorly developed, by dragging a dragons head from a former city, now under water. It’s pretty simple, but clearly there are more metaphorical, spiritual, social and political implications in play. The problem is, I’ll be damned if I can make sense of any of them. Even the ones I can, I don’t feel like they were executed well, or in an original way. It made for a frustrating viewing experience, because in these abstract, surreal films, you like to have those small revelations and moments of clarity, when you feel like you understand something. It helps you get closer to the film. I didn’t get that here.
Lost River has taken a lot of criticism from people claiming that Ryan Gosling has simply cut and pasted his favorite elements from other directors and films, and tried to puzzle piece them into a film of his own. I generally am slow to agree with critics, despite being one by definition for writing this, but on this occasion I have to admit that they may have a point. A strong one. I’m a little less quick to judge though, because in reality that’s what most every filmmaker does, or artist at all for that matter. The difference is not that Gosling did so, but that he hasn’t done so very well yet. It just makes it all the more obvious when the film fails to take on it’s own shape, or engross the viewer. It’s easier to pick out things that way.
So all in all, I’ve been very negative about the film, and that’s because it wasn’t great. That being said, it wasn’t complete garbage like many have said. It had some bits and pieces which showed flashes of talent from Gosling and despite its flaws, it managed to make me care about the characters. If a film can do that, it’s not a total failure. Not at all. Visually it was beautiful to look at, but it didn’t quite evoke enough mood or emotion. It’s his first film, and despite what we might think, not all great filmmakers knock it out of the park on their first try. Plus, there’s something to be said for making the film you want to make. If Gosling did that, more power to him. It just didn’t resonate with me that well. Would love to see what he comes up with next.