Lost River (2014)
Written and Directed by Ryan Gosling
In a rundown neighborhood of Detroit lives Bones, his mother Billie, and his little brother Franky. Bones is focused on stripping abandoned homes of copper so he can buy replacement engine parts for his car. The ultimate goal is to get the car running and get out of town. Billie, on the other hand, is concerned about holding onto her mother’s house, one of many decaying homes on a nearly deserted street. This involves her entering into a dark deal with a banker and taking a job at a macabre nightclub. Bones, meanwhile, has started a relationship with his next-door neighbor Rat and is attempting to avoid the vengeful wrath of Bully, a man who believes himself a sort of overlord of this neighborhood.
Lost River is one hell of a mess, but it is a pretty mess. Ryan Gosling employs the cinematography of Benoît Debie (Spring Breakers, Enter the Void) so everything on screen looks fantastic. Color is used to significant effect, particularly in the nightclub where the basement is lit with an eye-scorching neon fuschia. I imagine Gosling had some very vivid images in his head that he wanted to create on screen (The city under the lake, an inferno-ravaged house in the black of the night, the grand guignol of the nightclub) but little substance behind these images. I am a huge fan of artists like David Lynch, but the difference between his abstracted films and this is that A) they are better-looking art with better composition and B) you have to work to extrapolate meaning from them.
The worst sin Lost River commits is being too blatant with its themes. I felt the same way watching this film as I do seeing the latest comic book superhero schlock. Villains are too broad, themes are like sledgehammers to the face, and everything is so on the nose. Gosling does try to be poetic, particularly with Rat’s grandmother and the home movie footage she is lost in watching on a loop. But it wobbles between being stupidly dull and utterly nonsensical. And it doesn’t help that the whole affair feels like two or three short films that don’t follow traditional narrative structures. I have a feeling done as those separate short films they would have been something great. Instead, Gosling has definitely shown ambition but not succeeded.
He does have a great eye for certain images and you get the sense that he was bubbling over with ideas and lacked the focus to realize them fully. He gets a little ahead of himself and starts to think in terms of being profound rather than in exploring an image or an idea without pretense. The plot between Billie and Dave the banker really reeked of that and I wished it had been played more subtly. There is a sense of fairy tale on the Bones side of the film and that didn’t feel entirely realized. Talk of a curse and a hero journeying to a magic lake to break that spell are bandied about. I would really love to see what Gosling could do more focused on a magical realist fairy tale that didn’t try to reach out and grab so many other themes and concepts. There is a great film in Gosling, it just isn’t this one.