Lost River has the elements of a great movie, so why isn’t it one?

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Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, Lost River, is a movie I’ve had my eye on for a while. Actors turning to directing has led to some great movies before, and this is an actor who’s been hanging around with Nicolas Winding-Refn, so my hope was that maybe some of Refn’s talent rubbed off on Gosling. Or if not talent, his propensity for wearing bath towels as pants when filming and ability to look like some kind of hipster slug, because the world needs more weirdness in it.

Watching the slow news drip about Lost River was truly fascinating. First that weird teaser came out, with then-Dr Who star Matt Smith screaming at us to look at his muscles, then the much more coherent main trailer that made the film look less like a bad art-school project. Then the news broke that the film had become the whipping boy of Cannes 2014, getting booed and mocked by pretty much everyone there. What the hell WAS this thing, I thought to myself. I had to find out. I had to see for myself.

And now I know. It’s a first-time film by a freshman director with a lot of connections. It’s a pool of talent, improperly marshaled. It’s an orchestra full of talented people with a conductor who isn’t quite ready yet. But let’s start at the beginning.

Lost River posterIain De Caestecker is Bones, a despondent resident of Lost River, a middle-America town on the brink of collapse. His single mother, Christina Hendricks’ Billy, is struggling with the fallout from a predatory loan and the town is seemingly caught in the grip of Bully, a local tough played by Matt Smith. Billy takes a job at a seedy club run by her banker, while Bones draws the ire of Bully, putting himself and his girlfriend Rat, played by Saoirse Ronan, in danger.

Almost from the first scene, Lost River feels like a weird sorta melange of styles. Some scenes will have this very documentary-ish sorta feel, all natural lighting and hand-held camera work. But then we’ll switch gears and be looking at beautifully framed slow-motion shots.

Some times the set design will have this almost Tim Burton gothic feel (right down to featuring a giant skull mask pulled directly from Batman Returns) and then in the blink of an eye characters will be walking down this sterile, mono-chromatic hallways that looks pulled from THX-1138.

And don’t get me wrong, some of it’s beautiful. There are some breathtakingly gorgeous shots in here, and the editing is top-notch as well. But the problem is it all feels somehow hollow. The film as a whole feels pretty, but at the same time fumbling, awkward.

I think a lot of this comes from the cast, who come across as aimless, but not in an intentional way. De Caestecker just seems to be doing a bad Ryan Gosling impersonation, staring poutily into the middle distance but without any of the slow-burn intensity that drove Drive….pardon the pun. Saoirse Ronan is playing the “artsy indie movie girlfriend,” kind of vacant and cold and never presenting any credible reason for why she’s with the main guy at all. Matt Smith just sorta prowls around trying to come off as threatening, but never really making it work as a legit figure of menace. If any villain in the film really works, it’s Ben Mendelsohn as Dave, the banker/club owner who serves as the threat to Billy.

On that subject, there is one part of the film that did actually resonate with me. Growing up raised by a single mother puts you in a very odd headspace if you’re a guy, especially if you’re the oldest/only child. You’re ostensibly the only man in your mother’s life, so other male figures sorta become threatening and foreign, and you can see Ryan Gosling’s experience with this a bit in Lost River. There are scenes where I can identify with Bones’ protectiveness of Billy, with his sense of dread at Dave’s advances. So that, at least, struck a chord with me.

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But for most of the film, Lost River‘s American Fairy Tale vibe didn’t quite work the way Gosling seems to have wanted it to. In Drive or Only God Forgives, the imagery felt suffused with a kind of meaning, a potency. Here the dreamy tone and imagery feels like an affectation most of the time, like an imitation at the surface level.

There’s some of that magic there, and Gosling’s ability to capture the kind of apocalyptic disintegration that’s sweeping small towns across America is definitely noteworthy. If he’d focused on that rather than weave in quasi-surrealist images and moodiness, this could have been great.

But instead we’ve got a lot of very pretty images that feel trite and hollow. Gosling has a lot of talent at his disposal in the film, a cinematographer who can produce a great shot, a composer who can turn out a haunting, beautiful score, actors who can theoretically turn out a great performance, but they all feel like they’re wandering.

I never got a sense of what Bones was about, never felt a motif emerge in the varying styles of camera work or visual design. It never felt like it really meant anything, like it became something besides a mood piece. And as a pure mood piece, it’s pretty good, but we need more than that.

Drive felt like a deconstruction of the action movie hero, and the action/crime movie in general. Only God Forgives felt like a movie about someone with a crippling fear of forward momentum. What is Lost River about?

I’m not sure, and I don’t really know that the film does either.

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