Over the past few years, Detroit has served as an irresistible setting for American filmmakers looking to comment on the decline of an empire. And who can blame them? The rise and fall of Detroit is the rise and fall of a certain notion of the American dream, one where you can assembly line your aspirations, take an entire community up with you and then decimate them by fleeing for more hospitable climates. It’s a post-apocalypse where the end times came not with a bang but with a series of long, tearful whimpers, where optimistic pop co-existed alongside propulsive punk rage until one of those two departed for the sunny land of LA and the other only grew more fearsome. This year alone has yielded Buzzard, a depiction of a fledgling brand of dead-eyed slacker trying to hack it in the new world, It Follows, a masterpiece of teen fatalism, and now Lost River, a surreal post-modern fairy tale from Everyone’s Favorite Hunk Ryan Gosling. And as is typical with everyone’s favorite anything, the backlash is in full effect, which I suppose makes Lost River the fitting stuttering downslope of this trilogy of Detroit Cinema.
The chief complaint about Lost River is that it’s a pastiche, a quilt of Gosling collaborators and influences, from Mssrs. Malick and Refn on down to Korine and Lynch. But that’s a bit of poetry, isn’t it? That a Detroit surrealist film is an assembly line of its own, constructed from only the finest cinematic parts in order to be a streamlined machine. Is the problem that Gosling has purposefully made a film without identity as a kind of meta-commentary on American commerce and its victims, or is the problem that unlike fellow pastiche mastermind Quentin Tarantino, the parts that construct Lost River come not from the garbage heaps of exploitation cinema and B-movies but from cherished auteurs, film geniuses who are off-limits?
This isn’t to say that Lost River is a perfect or even a great film. The opening stretch is torturously self-indulgent, Iain De Caestecker’s performance as lead boy Bones apes a little too much of the blah anonymity of Drive without any of the sex appeal or stoicism and Matt Smith’s turn as Bully is something I have yet to make my mind up about. On one hand, watching Dr. Who ride around on a recliner strapped to the top of a garish boat of a car screaming “I’m the king!” is a wonderful image. On the other, Bully veers wildly between cartoon villain and outright menace, committing perverse acts of masochism, like cutting off a cohort’s face and killing animals, while also coming across as a buffoon, particularly thanks to the laughable thug look Smith gives him. Mendelsohn is a far more effective villain, but his motives are scattered. He essentially blackmails Billy into performing at his macabre burlesque and in a little-too-obvious metaphor, Billy does an act for him that involves peeling back her face and exposing herself in the truest sense of the word; taken at face value (ahem) it’s a statement on what happens when you peel back a beautiful facade and reveal its inner workings. Here Gosling seems to say that Detroit, and America on the whole, have always been grotesque and violent, and it doesn’t take very much to remove the face we present to ourselves and the rest of the world, just a bit of desperation and greed and misplaced hope.
Glibness aside, Lost River is a bold, assertive directorial debut that attempts to cram in all of Gosling’s influences, obsessions and lessons in one work. That it fails to completely do so is understandable, but the attempt alone would make it notable and Christina Hendricks and Ben Mendelsohn’s performances are commanding enough to smooth out a lot of the rough edges created by Gosling’s overzealousness. The true savior of the film, however, is Benoit Debie, whose prior cinematography credits on Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible and Enter the Void and Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers clearly caught Gosling’s eye. Regardless of your thoughts on the quality of the performances and script, Debie’s camerawork is stunning, managing to make Detroit look both completely alien and hauntingly familiar, with bold bursts of bright colors that ensure Lost River stands out from the dreary orange and teal palettes of so many modern films.
Debie’s artful touches might also have inspired some of the Cannes hatred Lost River received, though, since his camerawork is pristine enough to call more attention to Gosling’s weak points as a director—in particular, Gosling shares Malick’s interest in the scenery of his film over his actors, leading to a number of segments where the performances come across as hampered and frozen. The difference is that Malick spent decades building up to that digressive artistry and Gosling has attempted to jump right into it, something that tends to rankle Cannes’ older audiences schooled on respectability and proper due. Lost River may have flopped with Cannes, but Gosling’s firm commitment to just going for broke and presenting a gonzo fairy tale of Detroit’s continued descent into hell ensures that that it won’t be too long before the film enters the new cult canon.
We originally saw this film at SXSW and portions of this film first appeared in our daily recaps of the festival.
Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City. When he isn’t doing that, he plays drums for Denise and gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.