It turns out that Ryan Gosling‘s Lost River, which ended about 50 minutes ago, is much, much better than I expected — a wide-angle-lensed, visually inventive decrepit dream-fantasia that’s obviously been influenced by Behn Zeitlin‘s Beasts of the Southern Wild as well as David Lynch, Terrence Malick (murmuring voice-overs mixed with impressionistic visuals), John Carpenter‘s Escape From New York and you-tell-me-what-else. The film may not be 100% successful but at least Gosling errs on the side of wild-ass imagination. Some journos hated it (“show-offy,” “pretentious”) and there was a definite mixture of boos and cheers when the closing credits began to roll, but I know a formidable envelope-pusher when I see it. Director-writer-producer Gosling and dp Benoit Debie have really come up with a ruined realm of their own — part Tobacco Road, part urban wasteland, part psychedelia — and a lot of it is very cool to gaze upon and…I don’t know, get lost in. Oh, the meditative muck and sprawl of it all!
Lost River star Iain De Caestecker.
Ryan Gosling during last summer’s filming of Lost River.
Set in some kind of verdant, overgrown, foreclosed-upon urban shithole pockmarked with abandoned homes and rundown buildings (and shot near Detroit), Lost is really out there and a lot of it (okay, most of it) is driven by what could politely be called dream logic. That’s a nice way of saying some of it doesn’t make a lot of basic sense. There are mentions of a collapsed economy and a woman having taken out a home loan that she shouldn’t have so it’s obviously a post-2008 realm. There are predatory creeps roaming around like the feral bad guys in Robocop, and there are little pockets of normality and decency and respect for life and property. There are things that happen every so often without apparent motivation but with films like this you have to roll with the imaginative flow.
Lost River definitely has a compassionate good-guy hero (Iain De Caestecker), a gothy good girl with a pet rat (Saoirse Ronan), a nice busty mom (Christina Hendricks), a little red-haired kid, three scurvy bad guys (Ben Mendelsohn, Matt Smith and some guy whose lips have been sliced off), a jazzy-cool cab driver (some guy who looks like Warren Oates), a grand guignol blood-and-gore burlesque club run by Eva Mendes, a mute grandma played by ’60s exploitation queen Barbara Steele and an underwater prehistoric amusement park, among other distractions.
There’s definitely a good-vs.-evil thing going on, and it does seem to end on a note of relief and restoration and at least a temporary end to the uglies and their vile torturings and destructions. (I never thought I’d feel badly about a rat buying the farm, but there’s a first time for everything.) Definitely not a downer ending — I can say that much.
I kept saying “Behn Zeitlin, Behn Zeitlin, Behn Zeitlin” during the post-screening discussion among five or six journo-critics in the lobby of the Salle Debussy. If you have a place in your hearts or heads for Beasts of the Southern Wild, I said, you have to find a place for Gosling’s film. Bullshit, said one guy — it’s a pretentious, look-at-me-and-what-a-crazy-imagination-I-have showoff movie. Another journalist I’ve known for many years called it “horrible.” When I argued that at least the compositions are consistently novel and interesting and it was trying like hell to create an unusual world-unto-itself, he shrugged and said, “Whatever floats your boat.”
I met Toronto Star critic Peter Howell outside the Salle Debussy and we exchanged similar reactions. I again mentioned the Zeitlin influence and Howell said, “I was actually thinking of Beasts of the Northern Wild.” I used that line in my headline because I was totally thinking Zeitlin all the way through the film and I probably would have come up with the same thought so Howell can’t lay claim, but he said it before me so let’s give credit where due.
That Lost River trailer that I riffed on early this morning is unfortunate. It’s a truly shitty piece of work — a blunt tool that conveys very little of what the film actually feels like and is actually about. It conveys none of the visual rhapsody.