Review: Lost River

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Surface-Level Pleasures

Screengrab cinema, more interested in piecing together striking shots then investing them with thematic or emotional weight.

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In Ryan Gosling’s Lost River, Bones (Iain De Caestecker) and his single mother Billy (Christina Hendricks) occupy one of the few remaining houses still standing in their insular community located somewhere in the bad end of Detroit. Bones seems to spend most of his time aimlessly rummaging around garbage piles, staring mournfully at dilapidated buildings and searching for perfect spots of magic-hour light to wander into. Billy is struggling to make ends meet yet refuses to leave the family home because of the vaguely-alluded-to sentimental value it holds. Their across-the-street neighbour, Rat (Saoirse Ronan), apparently does little other than watch old B-movies, mope around her Dan-Flavin-installation-piece-of-a-bedroom, compose the odd Cat Power-ish melody voicing her desire to escape, and care for her comatose grandmother, Barbara Steele Cameo (Barbara Steele). Barbara Steele Cameo does nothing other than watch home movies in a loop and reminisce about better times gone by. The community is terrorized by a one-dimensionally villainous tyrant named Bully (Matt Smith), who deals with his enemies by stabbing them to death with a pair of scissors – just one of the many elements that seems like it was written during a game of Mad Libs. In other words, none of these characters exist as anything more than a bundle of tics and eccentricities, and they occupy the sort of historically unspecific, perfectly aestheticized slum you only see in magic realist Sundance movies.

Following a string of persistent threats from ruthless bank manager Dave (Ben Mendelsohn), Billy’s desperation forces her to take a job in a fetishist cabaret bar where she mimes being tortured on stage in front of a crowd of aristocrats, who proceed to ecstatically bathe themselves in the fake blood that splatters over the first few rows. It’s clear that these club sequences are based on some clever, sub-Eli Roth ideas about the phallocentric nature of corporate-capitalist structures and the similarities between commodified sex and commodified violence, but the needless repetition only re-iterates these basic notions rather than developing them, and leaves the impression that this subplot exists first and foremost to hang a bunch of striking, self-contained horror set-pieces onto.

This case of content being secondary to style and ideology serving as nothing other than a structuring tool around which bizarre images can organized characterizes Gosling’s approach as a whole. However, contrary to popular belief, there’s a difference between a movie that’s merely pretty and one that’s visually dynamic, and Lost River certainly falls into the latter category. As somebody who’s sat through too many self-consciously serious, low-budget directorial debuts by popular actors that attempt to show off their creator’s cinephiliac credentials simply by shoe-horning some nods to Truffaut and Manhattan into an otherwise lame televisual aesthetic, it’s good to see that Gosling has an extensive knowledge of cinematic history which he draws on to cultivate a distinct, singular style. This is to say that every element of Lost River feels like the product of a careful decision firmly rooted in a personal philosophy of editing, texture and performance.

That said, this philosophy is symptomatic of a recent, regressive artistic trend which combines disingenuous whimsy with disingenuous miserablism. It characterizes the worst work of directors like Lynne Ramsay, Nicholas Winding Refn, David Gordon Green and Benh Zeitlin. Lost River’s intense fetishizing of squalor and gloom is underlined with a worldview so generically simplistic and broad it borders on the infantile.

Lost River’s qualities are considerable: a catchy Cliff Martinez-esque score; a handful of nice associative montage sequences; some cool-looking handheld, three-quarter profile tracking shots; and some effective set design that recalls late-period Kubrick. If these pleasures all seem pretty surface-level, that’s because Lost River isn’t about cultural hegemony or community resilience or capitalist exploitation or post-industrialisation or any of the other things the occasionally on-the-nose dialogue tells us it’s about, it’s about the otherworldly pulsating glow of an electric purple underground passageway and the way ambient turquoise street-lamps throw light on a face in profile set against a low-hanging skyline.

Evidently, the film’s most valuable asset is Benoît Debie, one of the few working cinematographers whose work is easily recognisable from a single, randomly-selected image (despite the vast differences in the tastes and styles of the filmmakers he collaborates with). Here he’s once again working in ultra-garish Spring Breakers mode, apparently more interested in capturing individually striking compositions than investing them with any kind of emotional or thematic weight, and constantly on the look out to bathe surfaces in resplendent blocks of primary-coloured neon light to turn on-screen space into a makeshift art installation. The crucial difference, however, is that Korine transforms the superficiality of its images into the very subject of the film – and thus reflects on the profound superficiality of the culture its images are rooted in – Lost River just registers as hollow; it’s the kind of cinema that privileges the screengrab above all else, every frame a disposable gut-punch.

Lost River (2014), directed by Ryan Gosling, is released in UK cinemas by Entertainment One, Certificate 15.  

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English student, filmmaker and writer for Alternate Takes, MUBI Notebook, Film International, Mcsweeney's, Senses of Cinema, Little White Lies, The Vulgar Cinema and Sound on Sight. Too crazy for boys' town, too much of a boy for crazy town.

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