Last night I saw Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, Lost River, and I loved it. If you are a fan of directors like Nicholas Winding Refn or David Lynch, I think you will like it. It’s definitely a strange fever dream of a movie, and one I don’t think you would like if you are not comfortable with abstraction. It’s certainly a late night art house kind of a movie. The whole thing is visually gorgeous, with vivid colors that explode onscreen. I kept thinking of describing the movie as looking like “melting cotton candy” while I watched it. Even horrific images of things like houses burning, are darkly beautiful.
The movies takes place in an imaginary version of American, filmed in the depressed areas of Detroit. Christina Hendricks, best known for Mad Men, plays a mom that is trying to keep hold of the family home. In order to make payments she takes a job working in a nightclub, hired by an unsympathetic bank manager who also runs the nightclub at night. It is later observed that even his one act of kindness, providing employment, have malicious intentions. The club, a place that looks like New Orleans on acid, excels in acts that are full of mock blood and gore that distract its patrons from real nightmares of their days. What goes on in the basement of the club is even more sinister.
The other plot line centers around Hendricks’s son, Bones. Bones trys to help provide by finding useful scrap that can be sold. In doing this he runs afoul of the local gang lord, Bully.
The plot in and of itself may not sound like much, as visuals, sound design, and dream logic play every bit as much of a role in the proceedings as the story itself. What the camera sees, how things sound, tell you as much as the dialog and the overall story arc. This doesn’t mean that the general story arc is not clear, even if there are ambiguities, but the movie is more of a poem than a novel.
The performances of many of the main characters are great. The characters are more archetypes than fully fleshed out personalities, but in this kind of movie it helps, as it does away with exposition and allows the movie to attain a kind of dream state. You know who those people are and where they stand in the universe after only a scene or two. Particularly great is Matt Smith, formerly of Doctor Who, as the psychopath Bully. Also great is Ben Mendelsohn, who takes a Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet turn at the microphone, as the bank manager/nightclub manger. Out of the protagonists it is Christina Hendricks that makes the most impact, as she makes the most out of her scenes, and seems visually created to be in this film. Also great is a cab driver played by Reda Kateb, who makes a strong impression with very little screen time.
There are political overtones in the film, but this is not a political film in any traditional sense. Kateb’s cab driver talks about the disappointment between how immigrants view this country and the reality that they find here. One can’t help but be in disbelief of the world that in front of ones eyes, the dilapidated buildings, the seedy gas station, and know that however beautiful it all is in some strange way, due to the colors of the film and its dream like nature, it is equally horrific, especially realizing that this is all filmed in real world Detroit. The closing scene also is especially meaningful, though I don’t want to spoil it, if one thinks about the symbolism behind it.
However, make no mistake. This film is first and foremost about creating an emotional experience. Helped by this is the great music created by Johnny Jewel, and the title song by his band The Chromatics. Much like Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive, which starred Gosling and also featured music by the above participants, the movie has 80’s cinema overtones, even if these overtones are more about how we remember certain movies from that period, less than the reality of those movies themselves.
This movie received many negative reviews and was booed by a large part of the audience at Cannes, where it debuted. However, I think this movie will gain a cult audience overtime. I understand how there are people that will never like this movie, as it is very unsettling and requires work on part of the viewer to interpret its many charms. However, if you love batshit insane movies that deal largely in imaginative visuals and ecstatic emotions, then definitely give this one a try. Despite all of its obvious debts to other works, it still manages to create a unique and compelling world that is worth spending time in.