Starring: Christina Hendricks, Saoirse Ronan, Iain De Caestecker
In the desolate, crumbling and recession hit city of Lost River a single mother named Billie (Hendricks) and her son Bones (De Caestecker) are forced to take desperate measures to get the money that would save their family home; Billie is forced to take a job that leads her to a dark underworld within the city while Bones is forced to steal from a local psychopath (Matt Smith) which puts both the lives of himself, his family and his neighbour Rat (Ronan) in danger.
So we have another week and another actor trying their hand at directing; while Russell Crowe’s The Water Diviner was made with passion and was at times very well made but often fell flat on its face over some narrative hurdles, Ryan Gosling’s Wild River is certainly many things, and most of them unfortunately are not good things too. When shown at Cannes last year when it was then called How to Catch a Monster, Lost River certainly received its fair share of criticism (that may be an understatement), and it is certainly easy to see why, and though their definitely seems to be an influence from Nicholas Winding Refn (among other directors – we will get to that later), at least he hasn’t made anything anywhere near as hideously appalling as Only God Forgives.
Gosling certainly makes Lost River with undeniable passion, and while Crowe’s The Water Diviner played its narrative way to safe for its own good, Gosling’s Lost River seems to go to the other end of the spectrum. Ultimately I would argue that both films are forgettable and average, but essentially for completely different reasons. No matter how obscure or surreal a narrative can be portrayed on screen, if it has relatable themes or sympathetic and engaging characters at its heart then it can work. Well Gosling’s attempt at portraying a dark and sinister allegorical fairytale are most certainly admirable, but ultimately Lost River is perhaps too ambitious and ends up feeling like a messy, clumsy and overly experimental student film*.
*Can I please clarify that when I say that I mean no disrespect to film students – as a former film student myself I am aware of the high quality of some student films.
While watching Lost River the two directors that constantly came to mind for me were David Lynch and Terence Malick. This is not necessarily a bad thing; if you are going to take inspiration then take inspiration from the best (and I am sure Lynch and Malick were inspired by some filmmakers that preceded them themselves) but while Gosling occasionally creates some great imagery, the occasional great shot of a desolated building or landscape does make up for the sum of the film’s (lacking) narrative parts. There is a good idea in there, and Gosling’s inspiration was what has happened to Detroit (where the film was made) and the admittedly very powerful and relatable concept at the core of the narrative of a family struggling to get by is there, but ultimately Lost River just feels like such a jumbled up mess that it is in the end very forgettable and sometimes quite a boring watch. Many moments just seem surreal or experimental for the sake of it and so have no impact, and there are moments when Lost River does threaten to disappear up its own backside.
What is to Gosling’s credit is his casting decision and choice of composer, and the cast and music do at times elevate the atmosphere and emotional engagement of Lost River more than it sometimes deserves. Johnny Jewel is more known as a prolific music producer than film composer, but he has created a wonderfully atmospheric and dark score that is perhaps at times wasted by the film. Admittedly it feels like he has been listening to Angelo Badalmenti’s scores to anything by David Lynch before composing the score himself, but it undoubtedly enhances the film’s atmosphere and emotional engagement, and hopefully Jewel will compose more film scores in the future.
The cast is a combination of actors that Gosling has already worked with and young British talent and they all deliver great performances that undoubtedly elevate the sometimes lacklustre material. Christina Hendricks is particularly excellent as Billie with a genuinely heartbreaking performance. There are also moments of naturalistic dialogue and often improvised scenes by both the main cast and supporting cast, some of which are Detroit locals and not actual professional actors. Gosling has stated that he allowed his actors to improvise, and though this does add occasional rawness, allowing experimentation can lead to a feeling of ill discipline. Well despite only being 95 minutes, Lost River certainly often feels bloated and ill disciplined which, as much as we all love to see Ben Mendelsohn dance, is only ultimately to its detriment.
Lost River certainly contains visual pleasures, and Gosling owes a massive debt to his composer and cast (as well as certain filmmakers for whom he treads the very line between taking inspiration from and just blatantly stealing from) but it is ultimately an ill disciplined and therefore unsatisfying mess of a film. However Gosling’s ambition and intention to make the film he wanted to is certainly admirable (if slightly ill judged at times), and though he also treads the fine line between admirable self determination and deluded ill discipline with mixed success, there seems to be potential there in his creativity, and I personally look forward to what will be produced next by Ryan Gosling the director.
A directorial debut that is both admirable in its ambition and single mindedness, but equally ill disciplined and clumsy theft from other directors; there are visual pleasures to be had in Lost River and the excellent performances and score make it more emotionally involving than perhaps it deserves to be, but there is no getting away from the fact that it is a mess.