Is Lost River as bad as they say?
Upon its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014, Ryan Gosling’s hotly anticipated directorial debut Lost River had perhaps the worst reception since Lars Von Trier outed himself as a Nazi sympathiser three years previous. Unfortunately for Gosling, he didn’t even have the excuse of the language barrier to excuse his film.
Jeered and derided by the critics in attendance, early reviews of Lost River suggest a self-indulgent, pretentious mess, cobbled together from images taken from better directors. In a brutal one star drubbing, Robbie Collin of the Daily Telegraph described it as:
“…so mind-bogglingly pleased with itself that the words “five stars – a masterpiece – Ryan Gosling” might as well appear on the poster”
Meanwhile, Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian wasn’t much kinder:
“For “River” read “Opportunity” or “Any Sense of Proportion or Humility” or maybe just “Mind””
The negative backlash damaged Lost River badly. Distributor Warner Bros. were reported to be trying to sell the rights on to anybody else willing to take it, before announcing it would negate cinemas entirely and head straight to video-on-demand. Shortly after that, it was announced that the film would receive a limited cinema run. Finally, in April 2015, Lost River was released worldwide, where it made just over a quarter of its meagre $2 million budget back.
With the chorus of Cannes boos, tiny box office takings, a bizarre teaser (in which Matt Smith become a walking meme as he hollered “Look at my muscles” roughly 400 times), and a certified rotten 29% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Lost River has all the hallmarks of a true stinker. Is it really as bad as it seems?
Despite being a hot mess of ideas, characters, and cool shots nicked from other directors, Gosling’s directorial debut is not the total turkey it’s made out to be. Is it self-indulgent? God yes. Is it incoherent? Mostly. Is it boring? Certainly not. Is it entertaining? I’d say so.
From the opening titles, Lost River starts a game of “Which director is Gosling cribbing now?”. Early on, we get the ‘poetic poverty’ of Harmony Korine (I’d guess half the film is shots of abandoned and/or burning buildings, all filmed in Detroit) and the ‘shots filmed from the point-of-view of grass’ style made popular by Terrence Malick. In the early scenes, Gosling introduces the smallest wisp of a plot. Bones, played by Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D star Iain De Caestecker, scrounges empty houses for metal whilst avoiding the capture of a local bully called (seriously) Bully, portrayed by Doctor Who himself, Matt Smith, and tentatively romancing his neighbour Rat (Saoirse Ronan). Meanwhile, his mother, Christina Hendricks (who in reality is only thirteen years older than her on-screen son), tries to gain a bank loan from everyone’s favourite supporting psychopath, Ben Mendelsohn, who offers her work in a bizarre Gentleman’s club.
It’s the scenes in the club that really steal from (or, as I’m sure Gosling would put it, homage) better directors. Specialising in stylised performance murder (as demonstrated by Eve Mendes, who is introduced to the film theatrically getting her throat slit), these scenes mix the blood-and-beauty kills of Dario Argento with the slow, ominous shots of Gosling’s collaborator Nicolas Winding Refn (whose similarly stylised Only God Forgives was hated by this writer nearly two years ago) and the dark-side-of-town menace of David Lynch.
In fact, more than any film, Blue Velvet sprung to mind when watching Lost River. Both Bones and Hendricks’ Billy are fitting stand-ins for Kyle MacLachlan, reasonably ordinary people finding themselves sucked in by a disturbing side of the world they’ve never encountered. Rat is Laura Dern, another pleasant soul brought in to this new world by her love interest. Matt Smith’s full on performance is clearly reminiscent of Dennis Hopper’s iconic Frank Booth (both are unpredictable and dangerous), whilst Mendelsohn is a strange mixture of Hopper and Dean Stockwell’s pimp. Funnily enough, no more than thirty seconds after I reached this conclusion, Mendelsohn got on stage and sung in exactly the same manner as Stockwell miming along to Roy Orbison’s ‘In Dreams’.
The plot description may be sparse, but that’s because there’s little-to-no plot in Lost River. Bones spends the film dodging Bully alongside Rat, and Billy spends the film dodging Mendelsohn’s supremely creepy Dave. There’s a weird sub-plot about a monster living under Lost River (which is almost completely undeveloped, despite taking up a large chunk of the climax) and Rat has a few scenes with her catatonic Grandmother (played by horror icon Barbara Steele), but otherwise Lost River is a weird collage of scenes, monologues by real life Detroit residents, beautiful-if-meaningless shots and not a lot else.
One of the main problems with Lost River is the acting. Simply put, there are only three performances better than average. De Caestecker is staggeringly bland in the lead role, so forgettable I honestly had to google him before writing this review because his face had completely vanished from my mind by the end of the credits. As a leading actor, De Caestecker is perfectly serviceable, and I wouldn’t call him a bad actor, just very average. Christina Hendricks isn’t much better as Billy. It doesn’t help that she’s playing a poverty stricken single mother whilst looking more glamorous than the average shampoo commercial. Like De Caestecker, Hendricks is simply a bland presence, never doing bad work but never drawing you emotionally into her story. I can’t remember seeing on-screen family members with such little chemistry as Billy and Bones.
Most disappointing of all is Ben Mendelsohn. Ever since 2010’s outstanding Animal Kingdom, Mendelsohn has been almost note perfect in every role he’s had, stealing the show in a wide range of supporting turns, from the patchy Killing Them Softly to last year’s terrific Starred Up. Unfortunately, Lost River will not go down as his finest hour. Whether it was a rare naff performance or poor direction, Mendelsohn is ridiculous as the lecherous, half deaf bank manager who spends every minute of screentime looking ready to fight or fuck. To call it unsubtle is an understatement; it’s too over-the-top, the only character in Lost River who needs to be underplayed. By the time he performs an (apparently) creepy dance for Hendricks, I’d given up hope.
Luckily, there are a trio of worthy performances. In a small supporting turn, Mrs. Gosling herself Eva Mendes is at her most likable as the veteran performer showing Billy the ropes. It’s not particularly showy, but Mendes is nicely grounded, and her short screentime is very enjoyable. The always-dependable Saoirse Ronan, easily one of the best young actresses of her generation, is good (if not great) as Rat, the rodent-loving neighbour who manages to be overly quirky or weird. Rat is another underwritten part but Ronan is charismatic and charming enough to pull it off.
Best of all, by some distance, is Matt Smith. Having only seen him on Doctor Who, I assumed Smith would be far too likable and cute for the role of a thug who spends his days driving around the titular town screaming onto a microphone (his introductory scene, in which he does just this, is one of the most bizarrely entertaining scenes in the film), but he really, really goes for it. It’s not often you find a villain who can genuinely scare you, but Bully is that rarest of creatures; a truly dangerous character. Constantly moving like a snake and wielding a pair of scissors (just ready to cut the lips off of the next person who gets in his way), Bully is creepy whether he’s dancing with a local resident or offering Rat a ride home. Come the end of the year, I can’t imagine Matt Smith being left off my list of best supporting actors.
Though Gosling does not by any stretch of the imagination prove himself as a good writer or director of actors, he does prove himself as a director with a sharp eye for visuals. The lighting is absolutely extraordinary, even if it’s usually ripped from other directors. In the catacombs of Mendelsohn’s club, Billy walks through hazy red corridors extremely reminiscent of both Only God Forgives and Suspiria; a ride in a taxi towards the end of the film recalls the gorgeous rain sequence in Argento’s Inferno. Similarly, the cinematography may be cribbed but it still looks marvellous. There are at least two or three scenes that are the most beautifully shot I’ve seen this year, and when the film descends into its worst moments, the visuals always pull you back.
It’s really hard to know what to make of Lost River. In its endless homage and mimicry of better directors, its long still shots of very little action, and its borderline avant-garde lack of plot or realistic scenarios and characters, it feels like Ryan Gosling may have made the world’s most expensive student film. It will certainly struggle to find an audience; too weird and slow for mainstream audiences, too pretentious and familiar to arthouse buffs. Self-indulgent sums the film up; Lost River exists purely to satisfy Gosling’s taste in film.
And yet, despite the many, many problems with the film, I honestly didn’t hate Lost River. I didn’t even dislike it. It’s not a good film, but it’s nearly always interesting. There’s so much going on, so many strands and ideas and beautiful shots, it rarely lost my attention. As a script, it’s almost total bollocks. As a narrative, it’s as minimal as it gets. As a film, it’s a total mess. Most importantly, though, it’s a fascinating mess, a mess that suggests a talented director in Gosling waiting to emerge.
Lost River is not a particularly good film, but it’s interesting enough to avoid being a failure. Critics may have torn it apart and audiences may not have turned out in droves to see it, but in the same way of Harmony Korine’s Gummo or Only God Forgives, there is most definitely a cult audience waiting to embrace Lost River and its unconventional brand of arthouse sleaze. I won’t be one of them, but I do hope Ryan Gosling bounces back from his personal failure to direct a truly great film in the future. As long as he hires a screenwriter next time…
By Harry Ford
- Posted in: Articles ♦ Cult Film Review
- Tagged: 2015, awards, bad movie, ben mendelsohn, blue velvet, cannes, christina hendricks, dario argento, david lynch, dean stockwell, dennis hopper, drive, harmony korine, ian de caestecker, lost river, matt smith, nicolas winding refn, only god forgives, overrated, ryan gosling, saoirse ronan, terrence malick, terrible, underrated