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Non-Review Review: Lost River

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2015.

There is a good film buried somewhere in Lost River.

Unfortunately, it is probably buried as deep as the community that give the movie its name.

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The title of Lost River refers to a “drowned town” – a community that found itself placed under water, akin to St. Thomas under the waters of Lake Mead. In this case, the community was placed under water following the construction of the Detroit Dam. As a result the local community ends up abandoned and lost. Lost River presents an urban landscape that is almost feral. Street lamps that are half-submerged still turn themselves on in the evening, marking the edges of roads long since flooded with water or overgrown with grass.

Lost River is set in a version of Detroit that feels almost post-apocalyptic. Pop culture tends to portray Detroit as a community on the verge of (or even well past) collapse. There are iconic examples of this tendency in films like Robocop, but the recent recession has brought renewed focus to Detroit as a contemporary American wasteland in films like Only Lovers Left Alive. One wonders what the residents of Detroit make of these portrayals, particularly given genuine efforts to improve standards of living within city limits.

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The version of Detroit featured in Lost River feels like something from a grotesque fairy tale. The movie plays like writer and director Ryan Gosling has an allegorical story that he wants to tell all the boys and girls out there. He constructs Lost River as a modern day parable with obvious resonance for modern-day America, offering metaphors and similes that exist to critique the excesses of contemporary capitalism. Lost River feels more like a statement than a film. Unfortunately, that statement has a tendency to become a proclamation.

The problem with Gosling’s writing is that it is incredibly heavy-handed. Every point that he makes and reiterates in Lost River is fairly effectively telegraphed within the first ten minutes, and the film keeps repeating those core themes instead of broadening and deepening them. At times, it seems like Gosling has not so much filmed his script as rolled it up and used it to beat the viewing audience into submission with it. Lost River is pretty much every placard you’ve seen at any protest march, delivered in all-caps and stretched over two hours.

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It doesn’t help that the script is incredibly blunt. Ben Mendelsohn makes an appearance as a new bank manager who finds himself overseeing the debt held by Billy and her family. He is deaf in one ear, so he literally cannot hear her explain the situation. Yes, he is a bank manager literally deaf to the common person. Similarly, Matt Smith plays a young ruffian who victimises the young couple at the heart of Lost River. With all the subtlety to be expect of the film, he is named “Bully.”

This heavy-handedness even reverberates through minor characters and short scenes. Billy comes to befriend a taxi driver over the course of the film. The taxi driver turns out to be an immigrant so – just in case the viewer hasn’t grasped the core themes of Lost River – the movie gives us an extended monologue about the American Dream. This would be rather clumsy on its own merits, but Lost River pushes the boat out even further. In the middle of his speech, we cut to a quick shot of a house burning down. Subtle.

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It doesn’t help matters that Gosling is not a particularly adept director. Gosling wears his visual influences on his sleeve. There are quite a few shots and moments in Lost River that feel like they might have been lifted from a film by David Lynch or Nicolas Winding Refn. The abundance of neon, for example, feels like a choice influenced by Gosling’s long collaboration with Refn. However, Gosling never seems quite as confident and a brash as Refn; Lost River feels like an imitation rather than an homage.

There are also a number of obvious references to Blue Velvet. This is reflected in the script as well – Lost River is very much a gritty urban horror story framed in the tradition of a classic coming of age tale. More obviously, the depiction of sadism buried beneath the exterior of a fairly ordinary community seems like it owes a lot to Blue Velvet. Ben Mendelsohn busting some serious moves at the climax of Lost River – in a sequence that is never as bizarre as it wants to be – feels like an attempt to updated Dean Stockwell crooning In Dreams.

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However, while Gosling might have the right influences, he seems to lack a skill for stitching those elements together. There are a number of striking shots and images in Lost River, but the film struggles to edit them into a coherent narrative. The result is a film that feels almost like a collage; scenes and moments that feel more like variations on a theme than a fully-functioning whole movie. Gosling is clearly aiming towards a magic realist approach, but Lost River never feels like a properly finished film.

This is particularly obvious at the climax, where a bunch of stuff happens for some reasons. These sequences are played as a logical catharsis of what came before, a clear escalation that would seem to push things to breaking point. Billy is forced to confront the bank manager, while Bones finds himself going head-to-head with Bully. The problem is that it never feels like there is any particular reason for these escalations to occur at this point (and not earlier), other than the need to extend the film’s runtime.

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Lost River feels more like a lost opportunity. It is a film that very clearly strives towards greatness, an ambitious attempt by Ryan Gosling to use this platform to say something profound and insightful. Instead, it feels like a clunky and dull mess.

All audience members are asked to rank films in the festival from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, here is my score: 2

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