There has been a lot of hype surrounding Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, the much maligned, critically panned Lost River. The film, which I had long theorized would be announced for Sydney Film Festival due to its delayed Australian release date,1 has both its detractors and proponents, with some2 who’ve lashed out against its critical failure with its recent home video release, even going as far as to label it a masterpiece.3 Lost River was one of my most anticipated films of this year; I’m a staunch defender of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, a film that (to me, at least) is almost on par with his near-universally acclaimed masterpiece Drive, and Gosling’s debut looked to be riffing on Refn’s recent neon-drenched aesthetic. Having worked with him extensively of late I thought we may have a Refn-lite on our hands, not on par with Refn but enjoyable nonetheless. I was ready to join the elite group of Lost River fans, twirling a skeezy moustache in the knowledge that I “got” it, that I was smarter than everybody else and could see through all the negative press, Gosling’s true genius revealing itself to me. Alas, it was not meant to be – the question on everybody’s lips since Lost River‘s infamous Cannes debut has been “is it actually that bad?” and I’m here to tell you that yes, it is actually that bad, and then some.
From the moment the film commenced, opening on a montage of ultra-stylized, glossy, dull, and mostly irrelevant imagery of a decaying Detroit, with totally misguided track selection4 which had been poorly placed in the film’s sound mix, it was clear I was in for a terrible experience. The film’s plot is hard to define exactly, since it is fairly abstract and shapeless, however at no point does it feel well calculated. Billy (Christina Hendricks), mother of Bones (Iain De Caestecker) and Franky (Landyn Stewart), defaults on her loans, leaving the fate of her house and children in turmoil. Desperate to avoid foreclosure, she turns to banker Dave (Ben Mendelsohn, turning in a very Mendelsohn-esque performance that feels really out of place here), who encourages her to commence work in a macabre burlesque club – which sees exotic dancers fake their own deaths for a decidedly wealthy, bourgeois audience – for some extra cash. Running parallel to this is a plotline that sees her son Bones catch the ire of town heavy, Bully (Matt Smith), who seeks to exact revenge on Bones for daring to stand up to him. What ensues is a mash-up of aesthetically rich but ultimately empty pastiches of the work of the bastions of “true” expressionist cinema (Lynch, Refn, et. al.) and the underground, Italian masters of genre cinema (Argento, Bava, Fulci and co.) – it’s hollow, lazy, and poorly executed, a cheap attempt to cover-up the gigantic underlying flaws of the film’s dreadfully dull, magical-realism soaked plot which completely misses the mark.
One thing that’s particularly striking about the end product is just how derivative it ultimately is of the past works of others which in this case just ends up spawning a conceited mess as Gosling fails to create something new from past materials, opting instead to remake and replicate ad finitum almost to the extent of plagiarism. The Club Silencio sequence from Lynch’s Mulholland Drive is reproduced as Cat (Eva Mendes) is brutally “murdered” on-stage when we are introduced to Dave’s nameless burlesque joint, a later scene sees a character stabbed in their eardrum a la Only God Forgives, and there’s a house burning sequence that looks all too similar to the one in Brian De Palma’s Carrie.5 At the end of the day, the film is more of a collage than a homage, and it’s a trite and conceited one at that.
Perhaps the most egregious error of Lost River is that Gosling manages to unintentionally stigmatize the practice of sex work,6 conflating work in the industry with literally carving off one’s flesh, and removing all autonomy from female workers as the gate-keepers of such practices in the film are near-always men. In fact, the act of prostitution is also literally conflated with the practice of predatory loaning, the main point of critique in this decidedly heavy-handed post-Global Financial Crisis film as Dave, the man who introduces/sells Billy into sex work, is also a banker. I want to give Gosling the benefit of the doubt here, and put his misguided portrayal of sex work down to ignorance, rather than something more malicious – an inability to juggle a number of different converging themes and uses of symbolism in his film. It’s not too hard to envision that this is the case, considering how poorly he handles the rest of the material he toys with here, however it’s a huge error on his part, driving a film that, on face value, seems merely incompetent into the realm of the offensive.
So, what’s actually good here? A few sequences are visually impressive, and there’s one good sequence of Rat (Saiorse Ronan), Bones’s love interest, riding in the back of Bully’s car though the night atop his makeshift throne, about halfway into the film. Among this mess are a series of shots that show glimmers of potential and almost convinced me that the film could markedly improve in it’s latter third.7 Is one good sequence and a series of good shots enough to save this film? Of course not. On further reflection I almost wish this had screened at Sydney Film Festival because, like Refn’s Only God Forgives,8 it’s definitely a conversation starter, about the highest praise that I can give it. Lost River is trash; it’s garbage, and not in a good way. Do not waste your time on this, avoid being fooled by the completely unwarranted re-evaluation this has seen from a rather large group of pretentious and loud voices, people that will keep trying to tell you that they’re better than you just because they like this. They’ve been conned into singing the joys of something absolutely dreadful, a film that is not even remotely enjoyable solely because it sets them apart from the pack. Don’t be fooled by its aesthetic, nor the Refn connection, nor the star power of a man like Ryan Gosling – hopefully he makes a good film in the future, but this film is not even remotely worth your time.