I heard terrible things about Lost River. I heard it was booed at Cannes, and the majority of reviews have gone from unimpressed to vile. But my model for film critics was the late, great Roger Ebert. Aside from his relative humility, he really worked at going into films with no baggage, or as little as possible. And in the end, he evaluated movies by looking to see if they accomplished what they set out to do.
Before I watched the movie I thought about why I wanted to see it.
My close friends know that I have a terrible crush on Christina Hendricks, but more fundamentally, I feel bad for her as an artist. She’s been around a while, and then all of the sudden there’s all this attention, and at first, it has to be flattering and welcome, but then five years later, people are still talking about your boobs and nothing else. That’s got to get old.
I have been waiting for her to get that great movie role, but I bet most of the stuff that comes in has her playing a stripper or something. And although she was in Drive she had no material to work with.
I didn’t know anything about Ryan Gosling until his recent work with the frustrating Nicolas Winding Refn. Their two films (Drive and Only God Forgives) were visual treats (sort of like a live-action version of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City) and the trailer for Lost River showed me that same sensibility. Even though those are two very different films narratively and overall, there’s a lot to be proud of.
The description I got for this movie was so inaccurate that I had to suppress a smile at certain points while watching this. I’m not sure anybody at Warner Brothers had any idea what this was.
Of course this was after the incompetent teaser trailer, literally one of the worst marketing efforts I’ve ever seen, and one of the reasons I think the movie was so poorly received.
I was also kind of curious to see how Barbara Steele fit into the film. In the end, she is more of a prop, a visual reference to her work on Black Sunday with Mario Bava. Bava’s gift for lighting is an obvious influence on both Gosling and Refn’s work.
So how was Lost River?
I can sum up the plot rather quickly, because this isn’t about story. Single mother Billy and her sons Bones and Franky don’t want to leave their family home, but all the homes around them are getting demolished one by one. Bones is trying to help the family by stripping houses for precious copper pipes and other metals.The problem is that a small-time crook named Bully has decided that the abandoned properties belong to him, and with his small crew he has a habit of cutting people’s lips off with scissors if they cross him.
Billy tries to talk to the manager of the bank that owns the home, Dave and he suggests that she take on a mysterious job – that he won’t tell her about. Meanwhile Bones sort of romances his neighbor, Rat, who lives with her nearly catatonic grandmother. She tells him about a city buried underwater, and a curse that needs to be broken.
Billy finds out that the ‘job’ is a stage show (they might as well name the place the Grand Guignol) where they pretend to murder each other, among other indulgences. Out of desperation she begins to get involved, but Dave has his eyes on her, and every night she begins to see the extent of his madness. These stories intertwine, and for such an ethereal movie the end is unusually satisfying.
Succinctly put, I don’t know why anyone would boo this film. I don’t know why it has a such a terrible reputation and I think that as time goes on, if anyone remembers this movie, they’re not going to feel the same way about it. As a debut, its pretty impressive, although looking at Director of Photography Benoit Debie’s credits I’m inclined to believe that a great deal more credit is due to him than he is getting.
Lost River is a dream, and employs dream logic almost entirely, except for the only emotional beat that Gosling takes seriously, the family drama between Billy (Christina Hendricks), and her oldest son Bones (Iain De Caestecker). If Gosling is able to improve his writing enough to make the audience consistently care about his characters, he’s going to be a force, and this is the biggest flaw I have with Lost River.
Lost River is beautiful, a staggering accomplishment and a triumph in a visual medium. The problem is that the shots take so much precedence, there is no time for the people that occupy the story. The film also seems to have a lot more interest in some people than others, and the people it chooses to follow are the wrong ones.
Most of the longer scenes are with De Caestecker and Rat (Saoirse Ronan) and those scenes tend to drag (although that term is relative with all the cuts and vibrant lighting going on) while Matt Smith scorches the screen as vicious, (and possibly developmentally disabled) Bully, and Ben Mendelsohn channels a milder version of Frank Booth as the increasingly lecherous Dave. Most unforgivably, Hendricks turns in an excellent performance, even getting the best out of De Caestecker in her scenes, but again there just wasn’t a whole lot for her to do.
The real star of Lost River is Gosling’s vision of Detroit and there was no upstaging it. To his credit, he gets something out of the ruins that no one else has. The idea that someone saw this and catcalled it seem boorish at best.
This isn’t a film for everyone, but its a thoughtful, well-acted film, a visual feast, and more passion projects like this need to be made. I’ve heard it described as a pretentious art film and I would personally like to see a non-pretentious art film, because I don’t know how such a thing could exist. Personally, I see this as a neon Jodorowsky film. If Gosling can find a way to make his movies a little more hypnotic or a little more human, there is no ceiling to what he can do.