A film getting booed at its Cannes premiere is nothing new—classics like L’Avventura and The Tree of Life have received rough treatment at the prestigious film festival, the initial reaction by some (and certainly not all) in attendance not necessarily an indication of how they would later be judged. If anything, the ignominy can be a badge of honor, a sign that what a filmmaker has attempted is so bold and so different that initial viewers find it hard to absorb. What seems like a disaster at first can, in hindsight, be a groundbreaking masterpiece that points the way toward an exciting new path for cinema.
This is not to suggest that Lost River—Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, which was booed at last year’s Cannes—is on its way to becoming a timeless treasure. It’s not even good. But as a risk-taking exercise, a sincere attempt at saying something personal in a bold way, the movie has more life in it than plenty of better films. Lost River requires the viewer to get on Gosling’s self-consciously hypnotic and unquestionably derivative wavelength. Even then, Gosling doesn’t quite pull off what he’s trying to do—but honorable misfires have their merits, too.
Drawing deeply from David Lynch’s sense of uncanny calm—his ability to take the seemingly mundane and make it somehow terrifying—and Nicolas Winding Refn’s expertise in strong, simple, gorgeous compositions, Gosling has fashioned a movie that’s more a collection of dreamy vignettes, blunt allegories and sweeping music-and-image montages than a conventionally plotted narrative. Two of the prominent story threads concern Bones (Iain De Caestecker), a directionless youth bringing in money by stealing copper from abandoned buildings, and his mother Billy (Christina Hendricks), who’s struggling to stay current on mortgage payments for a house that’s been in her family for generations. Shot in Detroit—a city that, with its crumbling infrastructure, has become a handy filmmaking tool to suggest a post-apocalyptic landscape or a society in disarray—Lost River bombards the viewer with scenes of physical and emotional collapse, as Bones and Billy separately try to keep their family afloat.
That brief description explains the setup but not the main thrust of Lost River, which seeks to encapsulate a feeling of spiritual disrepair. The terrain isn’t exactly fresh—in the wake of 9/11, filmgoers have had their share of movie apocalypses—but Gosling’s take is more insular and willfully poetic than most. Streetlights stick out eerily above a placid river, looking like the silent, majestic heads of brontosauruses. An underground hot spot features beautiful women who during their performances appear to be murdered or commit suicide, a not-quite-fully-there metaphor for release, escape and voyeurism. And there’s always the danger that a lanky, scrappy sociopath named Bully (Matt Smith, formerly of Dr. Who) will pop up out of nowhere to unleash carnage. (His preferred technique is cutting off his victims’ lips.)
Trimmed 10 minutes from its Cannes version, which I haven’t seen, Lost River feels bloated and sporadically tedious even at 95 minutes. But Gosling, who wrote and directed but doesn’t appear in the film, follows his meandering path wherever it takes him. He does so with fearlessness—and with many collaborators he’s met along the way. Hendricks is his Drive costar, and Ben Mendelsohn (as the low-key oddball who runs the club) and Eva Mendes (as a club performer) are from The Place Beyond the Pines. (Of course, Gosling and Mendes are also romantically involved.) The film’s technical credits also reveal his good sense to grab top-notch pros from his earlier movies, including production designer Beth Mickle (Half Nelson, Drive and Only God Forgives), costume designer Erin Benach (Drive, Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines) and composer Johnny Jewel (Drive).
Beyond calling in favors, Gosling expertly culls together these talents to help him cast his spell of a movie. Along with Spring Breakers cinematographer Benoît Debie and editors Nico Leunen and Valdís Óskarsdóttir, Lost River’s creative team have fashioned a film that, although often disappointing on a storytelling level, keeps the eye and brain engaged. Eschewing simplistic music-video sensationalism, Gosling wants to get at both the tangible and imperceptible ways that outside forces eat away at our spirits, whether it’s the house payments we can’t afford or the creeping, inexplicable sense that somehow our lives aren’t working out the way they were supposed to. (Is the mysterious city that’s underwater in Lost River a metaphor for Hurricane Katrina or a suggestion of the different destinies that await us if a few random bits of circumstance had ended up differently?)
But Lost River’s melancholy, its quietly anxious drift, can only take it so far. As a director of actors, Gosling doesn’t have much on the filmmakers he clearly admires—including Terrence Malick, who’s thanked in the credits and whose trademark meditative pauses are woven into Lost River’s tapestry. Saoirse Ronan, playing a potential love interest for Bones, has precious little to do and too much screen time in which to do it. Hendricks has the right smoky-eyed allure for her noir-tinged story, but Billy isn’t much of a character. Likewise, Mendelsohn can be entrancing, channeling his creep’s most disturbing tendencies, but it will mostly remind you of the better ways that Lynch has incorporated similar figures in Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart.
For all of Lost River’s clear influences, the one film in which Gosling has appeared that most closely resembles his is Refn’s Only God Forgives, which, interestingly enough, also got booed at Cannes. Like that slow-motion-revenge-film-cum-existential-character-piece, Lost River cuts scenes down to their emotional, almost tactile essence, preferring an oblique minimalism that allows for mysteries and ambiguities over more obvious narrative signposts. (In that way, both films owe a debt to artist James Turrell’s extraordinary light studies, as characters walk through long corridors lit with one strong fluorescent color.)
Unfortunately, that leaves Lost River grasping at ideas and borrowed aesthetics rather than formulating an original synthesis. Thankfully, Gosling never comes off as pretentious; he mostly just stumbles along in good faith, struggling to craft a vision of a society whose best days seem behind it. Lost River is no misunderstood masterpiece, but at its best it makes you hope Gosling takes what works here and develops it into something stronger next time.
Starring: Christina Hendricks, Saoirse Ronan, Eva Mendes, Matt Smith, Ben Mendelsohn, Iain De Caestecker, Barbara Steele
Release Date: April 10, 2015
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.