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We Failed This Film: Ryan Gosling’s ‘Lost River’

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We Failed This Film is a series about various films that simply didn’t get the love that they deserved upon initial release. For the ninth entry, we’re focusing on a more current release than usual with Ryan Gosling’s much maligned yet ultimately magnificent directorial debut, Lost River.

How We Failed It

Most of the films I’ve covered in this column have been released fairly recently, within the past decade. There’s a certain time span, a grace period, in which you can wait after a film’s release before comfortably deciding, “Yeah, this film is underrated.” Usually, it’s about a year or two, however ometimes it happens much quicker, as Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, Lost River (2015), imploded as soon as the keys turned in the ignition. It’s a downright shame, because the film stands among the best of the year as an uncompromised and magnificent work of filmmaking. We failed this film, and we did it as quickly as we could.

Lost River follows Bones (Iain De Caestecker), a young man living in a crumbling urban community in the outskirts of Detroit with his mother Billy (Christina Hendricks) and younger brother. He has a friendship and budding romance with his neighbor Rat (Saoirse Ronan), who lives with her grandmother. Bones spends his free time stripping abandoned houses for copper or anything else he can sell. In doing this, he attracts the menace of a local self-imposed crimelord called Bully (Matt Smith). Billy, in order to make enough money to keep their house, takes a job at a seedy underground nightclub run by a shady bank manager, Dave (Ben Mendelsohn).

The failure of this film begins at its 2014 premiere at Cannes, a place where critics simply go to be grumpy. It feels like just about every other film gets booed there, so much that it’s the norm to boo a film for the sake of it. I’ll never understand why that’s perceived to be appropriate festival etiquette, as if you’re watching a point guard miss a critical free throw instead of a film at the most prestigious and respected of film festivals. But that’s the reality of Cannes.

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Here are a few films that all got booed and received vicious negative reviews when they premiered at Cannes, yet all stand as wonderful and uncompromising (if challenging) works of film: David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (which won the Palme D’or despite the booing), Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives. Whenever a film that is challenging, ambiguous and/or elusive plays at Cannes, critics just shut down and react like a child that refuses to eat their vegetables at dinner. These days, if universally negative reviews come out of Cannes about a film, you can simply infer that the film is actually great. It seems that at least one film receives that treatment each year, and Lost River was the film to receive that vitriol in 2014. Critics didn’t just react negatively, they reacted as if the film had manifested into a figure that called them a dirty word and made a pass at their spouse.

Wesley Morris wrote the headline “Oh, Ryan Gosling, Not Even God Forgives This” and quipped “There are people who don’t want to meet their favorite stars for fear that who they really are will disappoint. That’s how I feel when some actors direct. I’m scared to know what they’re really into or that there’s nothing there but, say, a spoiled teenager with designer taste in condescension. That dirty, lost little boy traipsing through the debris? I’m sad to report it’s Gosling.”

Justin Chang began his scorching review with “Had Terrence Malick and David Lynch somehow conceived an artistic love-child together, only to see it get kidnapped, strangled and repeatedly kicked in the face by Nicolas Winding Refn, the results might look and sound something like Lost River, a risible slab of Detroit gothic that marks an altogether inauspicious writing-directing debut for Ryan Gosling.” Peter Bradshaw wrote “The result clunks. It is colossally indulgent, shapeless, often fantastically and unthinkingly offensive and at all times insufferably conceited. Yet it is frustrating precisely because it sometimes isn’t so bad. There is something in there somewhere – striking images and moments, and the crazy energy of a folie de grandeur.”

The only semi-positive, thoughtful review I could find from the festival came from Ben Kenigsberg, who saw the film at a later screening than other critics and went in wearily, but he wrote “I finally squeezed into a screening tonight, but as the movie played, I found myself wondering, “When does this get bad?” The least one can say for Lost River is that there’s not a dull shot in it. Courtesy of cinematographer Benoit Debie, it’s a vision of decay, neon, and hellfire that’s like no other (well, except maybe Lynch’s and Refn’s). It’s probably the most purely beautiful film I’ve seen at Cannes since Drive in 2011.” He added “I’ll have more to say about this one as I process it, but the only thing close to a disaster is the critical pile-on that’s greeted this ambitious (if clearly flawed) debut.”

Kenigsberg was right, as Lost River clearly has its flaws, but it shines for them. Despite mistakes, this is a film you don’t soon forget. But the damage had already been done, setting in motion the second phase of this film’s failure.

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Studios don’t ever just react, they overreact. This was no different in how Warner Bros. treated Lost River following the vitriol at Cannes. There were rumors that they were trying to sell the film to another distributor, and a part of me wishes that they would have succeeded. If anything, A24 would have been the right fit for this film, as they gave elusive and polarizing films like Under the Skin and Enemy fantastic releases and great opportunities to reach an audience that no other distributor would have. At the end of 2014, Warner Bros. relented and announced a small theatrical run alongside a VOD release for the film. However, they did the absolute bare minimum to promote Lost River, doing their best to hide it under the rug in the spring of this year. I can count on one hand the amount of theaters the film played in, and how many weeks it played. The theatrical gross, as you can infer, is too small for even a rat.

I rented Lost River on VOD the day it appeared, but I would have happily paid to see it in theaters. This is a film with grand images that deserved to be seen on the big screen. If there is anything semi-positive to be taken from this fiasco, it’s a reassurance that yes, critics still have a power over how many people go see a film. Most of the time that’s used for good, but here it was a miscarriage of responsibility that barred moviegoers from seeing a great film. Lost River cost only $2 million, and it’s not impossible to make even the most meager of profits off of that in 2015. Such a  small price tag makes it even more baffling that Warner Bros. would choose to bury it rather than at least give themselves a chance to break even. To put it simply, your film isn’t going to find an audience if you don’t give people the opportunity to see it.

When Gosling’s film was released in April, critics had calmed down enough to deliver more measured, if still heavily negative, reactions. Brian Tallerico wrote “The good news is that Lost River is far from horrible; there are too many interesting ideas and strong visual compositions to write it off completely, and it’s actually kind of bizarre that so many people did so on the Riviera. The bad news is that it still doesn’t quite work, largely because Gosling has bitten off more than he can chew, assembling ideas and images without the directorial vision to connect them.” Tallerico concluded that “For now, Lost River is one of those weird films that I think some people will absolutely adore, grabbing on to its performances, imagery, and ideas, without really caring that they haven’t been stitched together in an interesting enough way.”

Scott Tobias understood what he was watching was produced with commitment: “There is much in the film that’s silly and grotesque, on top of its general hodgepodge of tones and sensibilities, but at least it has the courtesy to be a fiasco rather than timidly shuffling off into the ether.” Tobias added “Lost River comes across as the work of a poseur, hence the jeering, but it’s not that far away from being the striking, left-field cult vision Gosling clearly hoped it would be. He deserves a second chance.”

Gosling had Warner Bros. fund Lost River in exchange for starring in Gangster Squad, and any filmmaker that cashes in on a studio’s good will in order to make an ambitious, polarizing film should be commended. When did ambition become such a dirty word, synonymous with awful?

Why It’s Great

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The biggest gripe that comes up again and again with Lost River is how the film’s aesthetics were influenced by other filmmakers. Gosling clearly, and unashamedly, pays respect to his influences in Lost River. He even cites frequent collaborators Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines) and Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives) as his biggest influences in directing. And it shows, as Gosling is able to combine the visceral naturalism of Cianfrance with the heightened dream reality of Refn into a new aesthetic creature that does not feel imitated or borrowed, but inspired.

Gosling also takes a cue from New Americana pioneers David Gordon Green and Ramin Bahrani in casting non-actors in tertiary roles to heighten the believability of setting. In an early scene, Bones talks with a fleeing neighbor who advises him to leave soon too. The man reminisces on his childhood, and how sad it is he has to leave. This man actually was leaving the neighborhood for the reasons he cites in his dialogue, which makes the thematics of crumbling urban life more realized in the film. In one scene, Bully talks with a older lady (“Mama Aris”) outside a gas station in a playful manner. She just happened to be walking past, and the two took a shine to each other. These small roles ground the authenticity amongst the hazy dream that is Lost River. Gosling embraces techniques and ideas pioneered by other filmmakers, but he’s doing it uncompromisingly, and he’s doing it well. There’s nothing wrong with making a film in the vein of another filmmaker, so long as you do a good job of it.

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The entire cast of Lost River performs committedly. Iain De Caestecker is perhaps the least engaging of the cast, but that’s not to say he doesn’t have the necessary screen presence required to carry the runtime. The first time we hear Saoirse Ronan speak in the film, she sings a melody to herself, and it’s mystifying. Later, she asks Bones why he stays here in this town. He tells her its because of his mom and brother — what else does he have? We focus on her as he says this, and she hides the sadness that he hasn’t mentioned her in any of his reasons for staying. It’s highly sympathetic work from Ronan, and she connects with ease. Incidentally, Hendricks wears the stress of single motherhood convincingly. All external forces — whether they are Bones’s desire to leave, losing her house, and working for shifty Dave — all wear her down. She’s a personification of the film’s core, a crumbling structure that still fights. It’s an effective and emotive performance. Eva Mendes is a prime performer at the nightclub and sympathetic to Billy’s troubles. She doesn’t get much to do other than be charming, but thankfully that’s something Mendes excels at. Reda Kateb produces an authentic force of empathy as a taxi driver who drives Billy to and from her job at the nightclub. “Everybody’s looking for a better life somewhere,” he says, encapsulating the crushing sense of defeat that surrounds them.

Matt Smith was known as a friendly presence for years on Doctor Who, which is partially what makes him so terrifying here. Bully has a fractured, insane psyche that can explode at any moment. At one point, when a henchman questions him, Bully responds by screaming and cutting off his lips. Later he gives a ride home to Rat in a tense scene, and before he says goodbye, he asks to see her rat. He pets it, mentions it’s soft, makes a threatening sexual innuendo and then cuts off the rat’s head in a quick motion. There are passages of the film where you hear his narration over images of him self-worshipping — like an unwilling member of his congregation. “You can’t even see the woods from the trees, motherfucker,” he begins with. It’s unclear who exactly he’s talking to, but it ultimately wouldn’t matter. He just wants to preach, it doesn’t matter to whom. It’s established early on that he’s capable of psychotic violence, so when he appears in subsequent scene, anxiety persists in anticipation of what he might do.

The real MVP of Lost River is Ben Mendelsohn, as there is no better actor in the business when it comes to portraying sleazebags. Dave’s bank job has him going to different towns that are sinking economically, and he sets up nightclubs in each place as a means of escape for the people there — and means of profit for him. Nearly everything about Dave, every action he performs, is meant to display his despicability. What Mendelsohn does is make that despicability authentic and sympathetic. He feels real in ways that “exclamation point” villains like this don’t usually feel. One of the most captivating moments in the film comes when Dave performs a Nick Cave-like song called “Cool Water” at his nightclub, completely losing himself in the tune. He introduces the song as being about a basic human need and performs it like he’s thirsty for whatever need he’s talking about, like he’s exorcising some demon out of himself. If a Nick Cave biopic ever gets made, Mendelsohn should be the first person considered. In the climax, Mendelsohn also performs a sensual dance while Billy is in the shell. It’s genuinely terrifying — even before he reveals a remote to unlock the shell — and only Mendelsohn could make it that way.

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What critics did seem to agree on was the stunning and hypnotic work from Cinematographer Benoît Debie. He’s a master of heightening reality into a dreamlike state, bringing similar techniques and aesthetics used on his work in Spring Breakers and Enter the Void to realize this hazy fantasy of crumbling America. As Bones strips an abandoned school, Gosling hammers it down with a shot of a banner inside that reads “No Child Will Be Left Behind.” Several shots of burning houses are interspersed throughout the film, and each location is steeped in decay. Bully stands looking out at what he perceives to be his kingdom, and the setting looks post-apocalyptic with greenery overtaking all architecture. Rat’s mute grandmother (played by Barbara Steele) personifies the effects of an abandoned life; she watches videos of her wedding each day, her own means of escaping this decaying state.

Entering the nightclub is like descending into another world. The door is engulfed by the mouth of a beast. Inside lie macabre, borderline-snuff acts of bizarre, giallo violence. What’s in the basement is even more bizarre and frightening. There’s a human casing called a shell, where the person gets locked and people pay high amounts of money to act out fantasies. It’s a descent into a nightmarish hell just underneath the crumbling structures of middle America. Johnny Jewel (The Chromatics, Italians Do It Better) conducts a mesmerizing electronic score for the film, enhancing the dream state of each scene. The core emotions of the scenes are translated through his score, the aching heart of romance, the tense realization of danger and the pure sense of dreamy wonder. There’s a fairy tale quality that makes its way into Lost River, as Fish tells Bones about a theme park that’s buried under the water, and that’s why the neighborhood is decaying. like a curse. It’s a curse that can only be life if a piece is brought back to the surface. This subplot (and how its carried out) adds to the surreal and magical quality of the film’s aesthetic.

Lost River has a plot, but it’s more focused on the moods to move the story forward rather than traditional mechanics of plotting. It’s about gravitating to a certain mood of surreality that can then crescendo to a climax. The film spends the necessary time enveloping you in this dream state, so when the magical finale does come, you’re ready and willing to engage with it. The climax is mystifying, magnificent and unforgettable. At that moment, all layers of reality fold in on each other to bring this heightened reality to a magical life.

By the end of the film, it’s clear that Gosling still has room to grow as a director, as some shots overreach in their effort to poeticize the crumbling life of poverty and some interactions between characters feel inauthentic in their dialogue. But, good lord, does he ever try for something grand. That’s really all you can ask from a first-time director, that he or she tries for something. Gosling does that here and creates a truly special film that deserves recognition and reconsideration.

Going Forward

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The big hope is that Lost River has some arthouse revivals, as the film is one that deserves to be seen on the largest cinematic format possible. Debie’s cinematography is grand and deserves the presentation to match it — hopefully Lost River will receive a definitive home release. The current home release only has the film itself and lacks any special features that would help foster interest. With any luck, it will find its way to a specialty home distributor who can give it the release it never had theaters. The ultimate hope, though, is that Gosling can still direct another film — that the failure of this one doesn’t knock him down for too long and drive away interest. Gosling has a voice that is worth further exploration, and the biggest lesson to be taken away from Lost River is that Cannes critics are just grumpy, and that we shouldn’t let their bad reactions sway everyone else from potentially great works of cinema.

Dylan Moses Griffin has been a cinephile for as long as he can remember. His favorite film is Taxi Driver, and he reads the works of Roger Ebert like it’s scripture. If you want, he will talk to you for 30 minutes about the chronologically weird/amazing Fast and Furious franchise.

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