By now in the Five Stages of Cannes Reaction — 1. Reaction 2. Backlash 3. Backlash to the backlash 4. Consensus 5. Moving On To Next Shiny Thing — we’re approaching the end of phase 4 with Ryan Gosling’s Un Certain Regard entry “Lost River.” It is a divisive film, though not as polarizing in the spectrum of opinions it has raised as last year’s Ryan Gosling-starrer “Only God Forgives” which was either the greatest masterpiece known to man or the worst pile of trash ever projected on a screen, depending on who you spoke to. No, there are precious few viewers so far who’re going out on a limb to declare this film any actual good, but there are several shades of vehemence on the more negative end of the spectrum. This writer’s is probably a little sourer on it than Oli, who reviewed it, but that said, we’re in broad agreement on the fundamentals: it’s visually rich but thematically impoverished, and so derivative that it sometimes feels more like a supercut than a movie.
But Warner Bros. have the film in the U.S. and the cast and director’s names alone are enough to bring in the curious (as well as the more disastrous reviews which generate their own kind of prurient fascination sometimes), so chances are some sort of release will happen relatively soon, and you all will be able to judge the hoohah for yourselves. But while we couldn’t let you go in to this film unprepared, whether they’re famous lusted-after screen stars or total random nobodies, none of us round here particularly enjoys treating a first-time director with unnecessary cruelty. And so with just the requisite amount of cruelty, here are 5 things you can expect from “Lost River.”
The performances are decent despite the film.
Reminiscent of the Refn school of thought on performance which involves having his actors remain dreamily or stoically impassive when all about them is going to hell in a lurid handbasket, Gosling’s laudable instinct is mostly to get his talented cast to underplay. Christina Hendricks, Iain de Caestecker and the never-knowingly-large Saoirse Ronan all do their best amid burning bicycles and plastic Iron Maiden-type devices, to remain people when all around them is turning to meaningless motif, Barbara Steele literally just sits in a veil unresponsively watching TV the whole time, and Ben Mendelsohn plays a creepy but contained perv like he’s trademarked that performance. The only exception may be Matt Smith’s Bully, but to be fair it’s hard to see how one could go small and interior with the role of “bellowing psycho with an armchair strapped to his car.” Elsewhere, proving the WC Fields adage about being upstaged by children and animals, the rodent actor playing Rat’s pet rat turns in a nuanced and ultimately tragic performance as the doomed symbol of innocent friendship (and also, ickily, metaphor for "vagina"). Ok fine, we’re kidding about the rat, but actually the young Landyn Stewart who plays the baby of the family is very good, with the simple unselfconscious sweetness of his child performance cutting through the clutter each time he’s on screen to create the rarest bird in "Lost River": a moment of genuine human connection.
It’s different from the script but not necessarily in a good way.
It turns out Ryan Gosling has quite the fanbase — who knew? Many of them, it seems, have already gotten their hands on a version of the script, but opinions vary as to the fidelity of the finished film to that script. Certainly, the version we ourselves were acquainted with, while not terribly good either, had more explanatory stuff in it, and more material that acted as backstory for the characters and their relationships. So Bones’ crush on Rat is given more than a single line to set up, and Bully has more than an armchair and a pair of scissors to define him. Taking a leaf from Refn’s book here, we think Gosling, if he shot it at all, removed a great deal of that in the edit in the name of being enigmatic, but there’s a fine line between enigmatic and merely confused and disjointed. Some other things are just as bad if not worse than in the script: the one-time titular monster (from the “How to Catch A Monster” days, such innocent times!) seems even less developed as a theme than it was on the page and we can remember being baffled by how little of it there was there.
Johnny Jewel may just be the film’s MVP
While the way in which it’s used is often distractingly music-video-like (roaring loud crescendos over slo-mo shots of burning houses or people walking down neon-y corridors), Johnny Jewel’s soundtrack is probably the gem (yes, we went there) of “Lost River,” possibly because the film has little discernible narrative to force a particular shape onto the audio, so it can more or less do what it wants. Jewel, who runs his own label and is a multi-instrumentalist member of several bands including Glass Candy and Chromatics, and who also contributed music to Refn’s "Bronson" and "Drive," cleverly selects the classic crackly 1940s/50s tracks, like "Deep Purple" (though again, it’s even got a color in the chorus, "Blue Velvet"-style) that counterpoint and complement the overgrown decay of the setting. But the musical score is more unusual and original and may sound even better in isolation from pictures that just make everything seem too hysterically overcooked. Jewel’s own description tells you all you need to know really: “It’s more doo-wop, disintegrated rockabilly mixed in with industrial sounds. So we’ve been listening to a lot of Alan Vega and the Shangri-La’s.”
Ben Mendelsohn’s White Man’s Shuffle is the apex of interest in the whole thing
Yes, we’ve already shouted out Ben Mendelsohn’s performance as being one of the few highlights of this lurid, turgid mess, but while he steals every one of his dialog scenes effortlessly, it’s a physical moment that gives the film its main single pleasure. Down in The Shelf, a fluorescent-lit perverts’s dungeon containing a full-body contraption into which a woman, in this case Christina Hendricks, is locked so that men can indulge whatever extravagantly sordid fantasies they might have without her actually coming to any physical harm. Mendelsohn is her first client. With her locked into the device and unable to move he does the most utterly horrifying thing we’ll see in a film that also has a man cut someone’s lips off with a pair of scissors: he dances. It’s a grotesque Dad-dance, as he arrhythmically writhes around in his white shirt and slacks, that might be the number one unsexiest thing we’ve ever witnessed. But it’s also mordantly hilarious and less self-serious than the rest of the film as for once it seems someone is acknowledging just how off-the-charts daft all this is. Like poor Christina Hendricks (in fact it might take one of those contraptions to get us to sit through the film again), we couldn’t look away.
It doesn’t have to be the end of the road for Ryan Gosling, director, but we’d be okay with it being the last of Ryan Gosling, screenwriter.
It’s not often we wake up feeling sorry for wealthy heartthrob Oscar nominee Ryan Gosling, but today dawned the first day in the new post-“Lost River” world and it’s hard not to imagine him feeling pretty shitty right now. The reviews, ranging from poor to savage might not have meant as much elsewhere but in Cannes that’s really all there is, so there were probably a lot of averted eyes and awkward silences at the breakfast buffet this morning. But if there’s one thing that “Lost River” proves, it’s that Gosling is humble enough to learn from experience (in the case of the film, specifically the experience of watching a bunch of David Lynch movies and being in a couple of Refns) and there are plenty of learnings here that could inform a much better sophomore feature, if and when the time comes. Like, did you really need to hire a dream analyst? But seriously, “Lost River” is really an example of trying to run before you can walk, or even stand, with lashings of audio visual style slathered onto some tragically poorly thought-through storytelling. Maybe next time he should think about not going full auteur and either collaborating with an established writer on the script, or taking one wholesale that has been written by someone else.
Any further questions about “Lost River”? What do you think of the kind of reaction it’s received in Cannes? Tell us in the comments below.