Special Note: “In Defense Of” is a column series where I defend films that were not only panned in their initial release; that not only do I find to be pretty good, but also to hopefully encourage people to go back and re-evaluate them. So for this new installment, let’s begin with 2015′s Lost River!
So far in this column series I don’t think I’ve covered a film that brought on such a lambasted original response. But it all started at the Cannes Film Festival back in 2014, where actor-turned-writer-director Ryan Gosling brought his debut feature, Lost River. Curiosity and intrigue surrounded the project, but the initial responses said otherwise; many calling it some kind of grand-scale, heaping of a mess, disaster-piece (if you’re a fan of the critical aggregators, the film holds a 31% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 42 on Metacritic), which all led it to a throwaway release date in April of 2015. And with some years passed now and with myself having seen the film a couple of times, I can confirm there’s a little messiness here and there, but Lost River is also a film overflowing with evocative imagery and glistening atmosphere; a film with heartfelt sincerity and powerfully conflicting impulses of romantic melancholy and hardscrabble hopefulness.
The film focuses on a Detroit family trying to hold onto their home as others around them are being burnt or torn down. The mom of the family, Billy (Christina Hendricks), is struggling to provide for her two sons, and soon a sketchy bank manager named Dave (Ben Mendelsohn) points her toward a new job at a nightclub cabaret run by Cat (Eva Mendes). All the while, Billy’s eldest son Bones (Iain De Caestecker) is continually running into trouble with a local thug, Bully (Matt Smith), over copper scavenged from abandoned buildings, while a neighborhood girl Rat (Saoirse Ronan) finds herself caught between them. It’s captured amidst the crumbling architecture and economic devastation of Detroit, with Gosling throughout suggesting that rural purgatory is all around us, and the wealthy are pushing the last few survivors through the gates of Hell.
If the broad plot doesn’t sound surreal, then the tone will definitely settle you in, as we are delivered many unexpected cuts to flaming houses, zoos overrun with weeds and countless pieces of abandoned public housing. It’s clear that nothing in the film is meant to be taken at face value, that heavy symbolism is at work (something that some of the initial responses shockingly didn’t pick up on), but amidst all the highly art-directed (with production design from Beth Mickle) specificity there are moments of documentary-style naturalism. Together, the blend is quite effective.
It’s clear throughout that Gosling is far more concerned with mood and feelings than straightforward storytelling, which gives the film an almost bracing freeness. The performances float along with that openness, with De Caestecker’s screen presence being inconsistent, Hendricks bringing a bold classical vision of a leading-woman, and Mendelsohn stealing every moment he’s in with an unsettling mix of sleaze, grace, and aggression.
But, once again, the film isn’t really about the performances, so among the sharpest of Gosling’s choices in Lost River was choosing to work with master of color cinematographer Benoît Debie, who gives the film a blissful, deeply-statured, color-soaked look, often focusing on one of the deeply underutilized colors in cinema, purple. Throughout, there are arresting and indelible images, many around the Grand Guignol inspired nightclub with its bizarre peep-show basement or the tops of streetlights that peak out from under the titular river like urban Loch Ness monsters. The film’s score by Johnny Jewel is both pulsing and evocative, and perfectly embodies the film’s overall interest in mixing horror aesthetics with a childish, dream-like wonder.
If shoved into a conventional set of scales, Lost River can be hard to grasp. And, in some ways, that’s kind of like Gosling himself. There’s long been a sense that if Gosling the actor would buy-in/settle down (or some might say sell out) he could be a proper big time box office movie star. But, continually that doesn’t seem to be him; he follows the beat of his own drum, being one of the primetime filmmaker-first actors. And his tastes and inclinations came over with him behind the camera, with plenty of influence from filmmakers like David Lynch or Nicolas Winding Refn. Lost River feels like a summation of his touches as an actor, landing in the intersection of the fantastical, the absurd and the romantic. And while the film was bashed for being “too influenced” by other filmmakers, that’s what many debut features are, people finding their voice through the artists they love. So when a Hollywood A-lister decides to shoot for the stars for their first film and decidedly just land on the moon, it’s still more than grateful. Ryan Gosling wanted to make an art film and succeeded. And it’s in need of much re-evaluation.