Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Film Review: Lost River (2014)

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USA; 95 min.; drama, mystery
Director: Ryan Gosling
Writing: Ryan Gosling
Cinematography: Benoît Debie
Cast: Christina Hendricks, Iain De Caestecker, Saoirse Ronan, Matt Smith, Reda Kateb, Barbara Steele, Torrey Wigfield, Ben Mendelsohn, Eva Mendes 

The wolves, if they're not already at your door, they're gonna be there very fucking soon.” – Dave 

Ryan Gosling has always been a sort of spirit animal for the BSP crew since, obviously, there's much to be admired. Not only is he an actor who has proven multiple times that he can bring characters of all dispositions and genres to life. No, he's also a producer, musician and, as of late, a screenwriter and film maker. His directorial debut Lost River premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014 to rather unfavourable reviews. I, however, do not see the need to advertise for a new BSP spirit animal. In fact, Lost River, despite all the negative buzz, genuinely impressed me, further proving that Gosling will continue to increase his influence on the movie industry.

But let's talk plot first: In her struggle to keep her family afloat, single mum Billy (Christina Hendricks) encounters the shady banker Dave (Ben Mendelsohn) who offers her a job at Cat's (Eva Mendes) bizarre burlesque club. In the meantime, Billy's teenage son Bones (Iain De Caestecker) and his friend Rat (Saoirse Ronan) have to deal with the violent outbursts of the town bully, aptly named Bully (Matt Smith). That's the story in a nutshell for you.

I admit, the film is difficult to access if you head into it expecting a conventional narrative, a plot-driven piece or a kind of character study. Gosling certainly values style over substance. Here, the stars are neither the characters nor the story, but the mood. Shots of abandoned, rundown buildings, overgrown areas and mysterious lakescapes evoke an all-engrossing atmosphere of loneliness and hopelessness. Trapped in a setting overtaken by natural forces and decay, the characters find themselves without any prospects – and yet they cling to their surroundings, to their memories of times and places gone by. The use of neon lights and a sometimes beautifully melodic, sometimes upbeat electronic score by Johnny Jewel give Lost River a haunting, dream-like quality. The visuals stayed with me long after the film was over.

The characters aren't as memorable, due to a lack of depth. Their relationships with each other are broken down to basic emotions of love, hate and responsibility. On the one hand, this gives them an everyman quality, making it easy for viewers to connect with their emotions and struggles. On the other hand, it doesn't make them all that interesting. Fortunately, Gosling gathered a talented cast capable of making the most of their respective roles, despite the absence of fleshed-out character profiles. Especially former Dr. Who Matt Smith, who's usually cast as the cheeky nice guy, has the opportunity to shine as a vicious brute. His Bully is menacing, lulling his victims into a false sense of security only to strike them twice as hard.

I enjoy how Gosling embraces a very postmodern approach to his material. The influence of David Lynch and Nicolas Winding Refn, two directors I hugely admire, is omnipresent. The scenes in Cat's nightclub seem like a prolonged version of the "Llorando" scene from Lynch's masterpiece Mulholland Dr. (2001). Furthermore, Gosling interlaces the moody, beautiful melancholy of his film with snippets of absurdity and relentless violence, reminiscent of Refn films such as Bronson (2008) and Drive (2011). While I appreciate Gosling's efforts to pay homage to these cinematic treasures, there are moments when I find myself looking for his very own thumbprint on the movie. In future projects, I'd love to see him add a bit more personality to his already attractive web of intertextuality.

However, the Canadian has to be applauded for the way in which he manages to raise a number of topics within an only 95-minute time span. Lost River can be regarded as a commentary on nostalgia and how we tend to burden ourselves with idealisations of the past when, really, we should be looking towards the possibilities that lie ahead of us. It explores the connection between violence in fiction and real-life brutality. It sheds light on our understanding of entertainment, and – on another postmodern note – challenges our perception of what is real and what is only make-believe. These themes, however, are never force-fed to the viewer. They vanish, re-appear throughout the film and linger in the background again. They're subtle and yet strong enough to endow the film with an intriguing complexity and food for thought.

Lost River isn't a crowd pleaser. Only viewers who are willing to put visual power, cinematic intertextuality and a broad range of underlying subject matter over complex plot structures and characters will find pleasure in Gosling's first feature film. It's Lynch-ian, absurd, dark and brutal; yet enchantingly beautiful and delightfully mysterious. Call it artsy-fartsy if you must, but I revelled in its atmosphere and engaging music. While it heavily relies on looks, I don't find it to be merely an empty, pretty shell. For me, Gosling has shown that he harbours the spirit of an up and coming director, and has thus rightfully secured his position as BSP spirit animal. So yes, the job's taken. Please refrain from sending your applications.


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