Monday, May 4, 2015

Blogorium Review: Lost River

 Now it might just be the Cap'n against the critical community here, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Lost River is getting pummeled less because of what's in the movie than because of who made it. That's not to say that Lost River isn't a mess - and at times a hot mess at that - but it's a far cry from the disaster you'd think it would be reading the Rotten Tomatoes reviews*. It's somewhere between the two: a stylistic, albeit sloppy exercise in mood over narrative, with a very good cast that keep things from falling apart. Most of the time, anyway. If you choose to buy into the "urban fairytale" perspective, some of the logical ellipses are less problematic. As a directorial debut, Lost River isn't a disaster for internet meme Ryan Gosling, but there are some areas he could work on before (or if?) he makes another film.

 Before I jump into the movie, let's juxtapose Lost River with another actor-turned-director debut from not long ago, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Don Jon. I mentioned the "internet meme" adjective(?) before Gosling's name because by and large, that's how people think of him. He's an actor who was making fairly bland romantic comedies or dramas and was considered harmless enough that there are hundreds of "hey girl" memes out there devoted to his inoffensiveness. Hell, I made a few of them, based on the juxtaposition between his "romantic" phase vs. the newer, indie-er fare. The transition from The Notebook to Only God Forgives seems to rankle some folks, and I guess that's how we ended up here. It's funny, because Gordon-Levitt is considered more "likable" - for whatever that's worth - or is more favorable, so when he made Don Jon, it received mostly positive marks. Kind of a "wow, good for him" vibe.

 And don't get me wrong, I like Don Jon, both as a movie and as a directorial debut. It gets a lot of mileage out of Gordon-Levitt's charisma, and that helps smooth over the fact that the flashy beginning fades away into a wholly conventional conclusion. Gosling isn't on camera in Lost River, but a few people he worked with before are, specifically from his "serious" phase: Christina Hendricks (Drive), and Ben Mendelsohn and Eva Mendes (The Place Beyond the Pines). Also along for the ride are Ian De Caestecker (Filth), Saoirse Ronan (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Matt Smith (Doctor Who), and Barbara Steele (Black Sunday), although her role amounts to little more than a glorified cameo, as she's mostly catatonic during the film.

 In the town of Lost River, everything is falling apart. Literally. Buildings that aren't being demolished are crumbling, abandoned, as residents pack up and move out. Billy (Hendricks) lives in her grandmother's old house with Bones (De Caestecker) and Franky (Landyn Stewart). Bones has been stealing copper from abandoned buildings in order to sell it to fix his car, but he won't leave without his mother and little brother. Billy won't leave, even though she's three months behind on the mortgage and the bank marks the house for demolition. Stealing copper has put Bones on the bad side of Bully (Smith), a vicious thug who claims to "own" any abandoned territory in Lost River. Bully's violent predilections threaten to affect both Bones and Rat (Ronan), a neighbor who lives with her Grandma (Steele), who only watches videos of her wedding from decades ago. Rat and Bones discuss the origins of the town's name after Bones discovers streetlights leading away from Bully's hideout into the water. The old town was flooded in the 1960s, and Rat believes that Lost River is cursed. In order to set things right, Bones takes a particularly unusual reading of "kill the dragon" literally and heads underwater, even as Bully closes in on him.

  I've seen quite a few reviews compare Lost River to David Lynch (often unfavorably), which is odd to me, because it seems like another example of "tie something to David Lynch because it's 'weird'". If you really want to throw lofty comparisons out there, the beginning of Lost River is reminiscent of The Tree of Life, both in Gosling's focus on the children, but also his choice of camera angles. In reality, I'm much more inclined to say that if Lost River resembles any other films, stylistically, it would be fair to say that Gosling picked up a lot from Nicolas Winding Refn and Derek Cianfrance, who he's been working with recently. There's a heavy does of Only God Forgives' fluorescent lighting clashing with the natural ambience of The Place Beyond the Pines, somewhat uncomfortably, to be honest. It's hard to tell what the geography of Lost River is, because Gosling filmed in Detroit (it's fairly evident when you watch the film, especially if you've seen Only Lovers Left Alive or It Follows), but where Billy's house is in relation to the city or how far Bully's hideout (an old zoo) is from Rat's house is really unclear. You have to take a car or a taxi to get from where they live to downtown, but Bones can walk unfettered between apartment complexes and the woods where the river is.

 The most "Lynch-ian" element would be, I suppose, the "club" that Dave (Mendelsohn) operates in Lost River. He's taken over as the manager on foreclosures at the bank, and whenever he moves into a town, Dave sets up a club catering to fans of Grand Guignol enthusiasts, where women entertain the audience before being brutally murdered. That's how Billy meets Cat (Mendes), the star attraction of Dave's show. She's friendly, blasé about the bloodletting (it's all for show, anyway), and at Dave's behest, offers Billy a job to help pay that mortgage off. She also shows Billy the "downstairs" section, which involve private rooms and some sort of device the girls can "lock" themselves into while clients... do something. It's the most abstract element of an already abstract narrative, and other than bringing Dave and Billy's relationship to its logical conclusion, serves little purpose other than to be menacing and slightly weird. Far more interesting are the girls routines, particularly Billy's. I'm not sure if the acts are meant to be some kind of magical realism or simply artifice, but I seriously doubt she could put together hers in three days. It's grotesque, but a highlight of the film.

 Matt Smith is easily the other high point of Lost River; as Bully, he's a true threat to anyone and everyone he comes into contact with. Long before we see what he likes to do with his scissors (and, believe me, if Billy's act doesn't scare away the squeamish, what he does to his sidekick Mouth certainly will), we know to fear him. Bones drops all of the copper he's found the moment he sees Bully waiting outside of the school he's been pillaging. If you only know Smith at the Eleventh Doctor, you're in for a real surprise. He's terrifying without having to say a word, using his lanky frame to impose, his face twisted, capable of snapping at a moment's notice. Even when he's being nice (as he seems to be while driving Rat home), there's a palpable tension. This man is Evil, and you should not upset him.

 Likewise, but to a lesser degree, people who only know Hendricks as Joan from Mad Men or De Caestecker as Fitz in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will be pleasantly surprised to see them in different sorts of parts. Although, I'd hesitate to say there's much in the way of "characters" to speak of: the fact that many of them don't have names should be an indicator of just how closely Gosling hews to the "fairy tale" aspect of Lost River. Bones and Rat are more or less thinly sketched out collections of "traits," and Bully is, strictly speaking, just the monster. Dave has a bit more nuance, only because there's so much we don't know about him during the film. Unfortunately, while nobody really has a character arc to speak of, Dave gets the most build up for a quickly glossed over moment of dramatic irony (tied to the fact that he continually mentions being deaf in one ear).

  Only the legendary Barbara Steele feels wasted, spending most of the film sitting in a chair, a funeral veil covering her face. She only has a moment or two with Ronan onscreen, when the tape stops playing and Rat finds her cowering in the room, unsure of what to do with herself. Other than being a sort of jumping off point for exposition - how Rat would know what she knows about Lost River - Steele serves little purpose in the film, and it's debatable that just having her there at all is more important than not having that character. Billy is underdeveloped, which wouldn't matter as much if the middle of Lost River didn't shift so heavily in her direction. Gosling seems to be unclear whose story the film is: Billy's or Bones', so he alternates, haphazardly, between the two, without ever really bringing them together at the end.

 The issues with who (or what) Lost River is about are indicative of the overall sloppy nature of Gosling's writing and direction. As a mood piece, the film is certainly worth seeing. As a film, it falls short of the mark and is often too confused about where it was aiming for in the first place. But as I stressed at the outset of the review, it's nowhere near the disaster that critics claim it is. It's appeal is limited, yes, but there's enough to appreciate about what Gosling was trying to do that I can think of a few people I know who might enjoy it. I've heard the phrase "overindulgent" lobbied at Lost River, and while I don't necessarily agree with it, there is an at times deliberately obtuse way in which Gosling presents information.

 His visual metaphors are obvious, but their purpose is often times unclear, or at best poorly conveyed. There's a continued through line of juxtaposing fire and water, which seems to relate to his uncomfortable shoehorning of "slaying the dragon" into the narrative. It's introduction into the film is more problematic than how Bones finally "lifts" the curse on the town, and I give Gosling credit for finding an arresting image on which to close out the film. On the other hand, the resolution of Dave and Bully as alternate antagonists feels rushed, as though an afterthought. Bully, in particular, exits the film in such an anticlimactic manner that you might miss what's actually happening to him - the shot preceding his last moment is a perfect example of the "fire / water" theme, but it's barely onscreen long enough for it to resonate. There's also a questionable issue of geography (again).

 And yet, despite all of this, I kind of liked Lost River. I would certainly be interested in seeing what Gosling the director does next, although Gosling the writer could use some fine tuning. Many of the films problems are less on what's on screen than in the translation from what they were supposed to mean. If anything. To suggest the film might be "Lynchian" in the sense that what's on screen was never meant to refer to something specific, or to defy conventional explanation might be fair. But by the same token, Gosling is utilizing well worn themes and archetypes in ways that conform to traditional fairy tale structures. It's a combination that could work, but doesn't necessarily in this case. That said, there are many striking moments and visuals in Lost River, enough to keep adventurous viewers engaged between scenes of leaden exposition. If nothing else, it's a real showcase for Matt Smith, who makes the strongest impression with a character we barely know. His feral performance kept me invested for most of the film. Lost River, while not an unmitigated disaster, is a curio: a rough draft, a sketch of a mood piece, that maybe needed more refining. That's not what we got, and your mileage may vary about whether it's worth seeing, but don't (necessarily) believe the hype. A noble failure might still be a failure, but it's not a train wreck just because the director is easy to ridicule.

 * I realize that this shouldn't be used as the sole barometer of the quality of a film, but the site does give you a good idea of what a wide swath of critics think about a movie.

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