Hollywood studios are not exactly in the business of taking risks these days. When Warner Brothers handed Ryan Gosling $3 million for distribution rights to his debut film as writer/director, Lost River, perhaps they were playing some kind of a long game, picking up his passion project to bank some goodwill for future, presumably more commercial-friendly efforts. By committing to putting this dark, bizarre, difficult movie into theaters, they were taking the kind of risk that’s increasingly rare in this reboot-and-sequel climate, and one that’s worth applauding. But applause has not exactly been forthcoming for Lost River.
The trouble started at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, where — in a near beat-for-beat repeat of the previous year’s reception for Gosling’s last starring vehicle, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives — Lost River debuted to a chorus of boos and derision. The reviews were brutal. Rumors swirled that WB was suffering from buyer’s remorse, trying desperately to offload the picture to a smaller distributor. In the end, they decided to keep it for limited theatrical/VOD release, similar to their strategy for last year’s Veronica Mars. But the company is treating it like a toxic asset; when it ran at SXSW last month, for example, Warner Brothers reportedly only allowed a single screening, and explicitly forbade it from running at the fest’s largest venue, the Paramount, fearing bad buzz. Press screenings for New York press were scheduled at the last possible minute. There’s a sense that they’re just holding their breath and waiting for this thing to blow over.
All of which is too bad, because while Lost River is problematic, it’s also a daring and compelling piece of work. Set in an appropriately bombed-out Detroit that feels less like a fallen industrial center than a Western ghost town, Gosling’s urban fairy tale concerns Billy (Christina Hendricks, wonderful), a single mother desperately trying to hang on to the family home, and her teenage son Bones (Iain De Caestecker) who spends his days hustling copper and taking care of his younger brother. Behind on the payments, she entertains an offer from a scuzzy bank manager (the great Ben Mendelsohn) to go to work for him at his other place of business, a ritzy club that stages elaborate, grotesque, Grand Guignol-type variety shows, with additional attractions downstairs for those with more peculiar tastes.
Lost River is filled with the ghosts of Gosling’s previous pictures; he directs Place Beyond the Pines co-stars Mendelsohn and Eva Mendes and Drive co-star Hendricks, while Johnny Jewel’s music frequently echoes the latter film’s synth score. (Even the title font bears an awfully close resemblance to Drive’s.) The visual influence of Drive and God director Refn is all over Gosling’s admittedly striking compositions, and the club scenes play like David Lynch homage even before Mendelsohn grabs a mic and croons “Cool Water.”
And the moments that aren’t explicit callbacks often reverberate with a sort of general silliness; the family’s neighbors across the way are a teenage girl (Saoirse Ronan) whose room is lit with a neon pink flamingo, while her grandmother sits in the hoarder-clutter living room watching an endless VHS loop of her wedding video. That’s first-year film student shit, the kind of obnoxiously self-conscious “artiness” that Lost River’s scathing reviews are warning you about.
And yet, such moments exist alongside — sometimes simultaneously with — flashes of genuine brilliance. Benoît Debie’s stunning cinematography creates shifting moods in a snap, from gnarly beauty to urban hellscape, which combines with the increasingly surreal imagery to give the picture a haunted, nightmarish quality. Gosling adopts a daringly elliptical sense of scene construction, with dialogue often displaced or represented merely by a few lines from the middle of conversations, and he fills the fringes of his story with colorful, memorable personalities (many of them, it seems, non-actors playing variations on themselves) that add some extra flavor to the stark narrative. And his sense of simultaneous storytelling — the way he’ll intercut scenes, and the sharpness with which those cuts are executed — is impeccable.
Look, maybe this is all a case of lowered expectations, a year’s worth of bad buzz and an admitted admiration for Gosling’s indifference toward stardom accumulating in a “hey, it’s not that bad” response to a much-reviled misfire. But I don’t think so. Lost River drew me in to its nihilistic, disturbing, eccentric world, and while it might not be a model of narrative efficiency, it’s got more striking moments and memorable images than a season of studio product. And your mileage may vary, but this moviegoer would much rather give himself over to something this wild and bizarre that maybe doesn’t quite fire than, say, a branded, over-produced car chase movie with a 7 in the title.
Just as an example.