Title: Lost River
Director: Ryan Gosling
Major Players: Christina Hendricks, Saoirse Ronan, Ben Mendelsohn
Out Of Five: 2
Loudly booed and panned by the critics at last year’s Cannes, Ryan Gosling’s debut as writer/director, Lost River, didn’t even make it to US cinemas. It went straight to DVD and looked like it was heading that way in this country as well. So it was something of a surprise when it had a cinematic release in April, as well as popping up online. Now, less than two months later, it’s out on DVD.
So why the bad rep? I’ve never booed a film in my life and I’m not about to start now. Given the number of movies I watch during the course of a month, there’s going to be the inevitable one or two that are just out-and-out bad. Lost River doesn’t fall into that category but, if I’m being totally honest, it really isn’t very good either.
It aims to be a fairy tale of the very dark variety, with two parallel yet vaguely overlapping story lines. In the near-deserted town of Lost River, Billy (Christina Hendricks) is trying to hold on to her house and keep her family together. Unable to meet the monthly payments, she takes a job at a remote adult club that leads her into a black and murky world. At the same time, her teenage son Bones (Iain De Caestecker) discovers a road leading to a reservoir with a flooded town lying deep in its waters. There’s a local myth that it put a curse on Lost River, so Bones sets out to break it.
That’s the narrative, but what the film is meant to be about I’m not entirely sure. I may be doing Gosling a disservice by saying this, but it looks writing and directing the film have meant that he’s just too close to it. So close, that he’s forgotten one of the rules of directing, that you not only understand the film yourself but have to guide your audience towards the same understanding. I don’t doubt that he completely gets his film, but he’s fallen down on the second half. As a fairy tale, it’s certainly dark but so much so that its near impenetrable.
It’s also lopsided, because the emphasis is increasingly on the bizarre “job” that Hendricks takes to make some money. This comes via the most unlikely bank manager ever, Ben Mendelsohn, who reeks of menace and is behind the entire enterprise. With the archway over the main door looking like the entrance to a nasty fun fair ride and a cabaret line-up of bizarre acts, all of which get bloody at one stage or another, it’s a truly bizarre place. And straight out of David Lynch, as is much of the film, although I can’t help but think that in Lynch’s hands it might have made more sense. Now there’s a thought!
Frustratingly, this is a film that starts with a number of plus points. Ryan Gosling as writer/director is clearly one of them, even though he hit a flat patch as an actor with his two most recent films, Only God Forgives and Gangster Squad. The cast has Hendricks, Saoirse Ronan, Mendelsohn and even Doctor Who’s Matt Smith. And there’s a budget of $2 million, admittedly low, but the kind of pot that plenty of indie makers would give their right arm for.
So is there actually anything good about it? Gosling, and his cinematographer Benoit Debie, have an eye for a strong, memorable image. The street lights standing proud above the water in the reservoir, a blazing bicycle travelling at speed down the road and Bones and his friend Rat (Ronan) dancing alone in an empty, high arched dance hall. The deserted town, smothered with graffiti, is equally striking and points to the possibility of a parable about the recession. But, if it is, Gosling’s making his audience work hard to uncover it.
There’s no word on whether he’s going to direct again any time soon: instead, he appears to be concentrating on acting again. Maybe his natural home is in front of the camera, or maybe he just rushed into trying his hand at directing. Not every actor who’s turned to directing has been a success or has actively enjoyed it. It may turn out that Gosling has the chops to make the grade but his debut has is just like the town at the centre of the story. Lost.
Lost River is on DVD from Monday, 1 June.