“What if something happened and we had to leave tomorrow? Would you come?”
Comparable to a moviegoer’s escape into the world of the film they’re watching, the movies themselves can be just as preoccupied with escapism. Take The Wizard of Oz as a universally known example. Dorothy is abruptly swept up and out of her little Kansas home, embarking on a remarkable journey. The thing is, although she dreams of fleeing the Sunflower State, the purpose of her pilgrimage through the magical Emerald City is to return home. To go back to the life she knew. Lost River, an enjoyably grueling and kaleidoscopic film, is the exact same story with a neo-noir style. Some movies can just be casually watched and others can’t. This is the latter. Ryan Gosling’s impressive directorial debut begs to be read both visually and auditorily. Not to use the word with crass or a demeaning tone, but Lost River is emotionally distant and evocative panhandling. And that’s meant as a compliment.
Left in the ruins of a crumbling ghost town, single mother Billy (Christina Hendricks) resists abandoning her home while the rest of the community goes south. She has a toddler and an older son named Bones (Ian De Caestecker) who vows to look at his birthplace one last time through the rear-view of his soon to be fixed up car. With the population dwindling, the suitably named Bully (Matt Smith) has taken control, including the scrapping of copper for money as he prowls the streets perched in his throne, which in this case is a lounge chair attached to the back of a Cadillac Eldorado. I’d imagine him getting sick at the lyrics to Woody Guthrie’s folk anthem This Land Is Your Land. Bully is a one-dimensional antagonist, but he serves his purpose in the story, as do everyone else.
Billy resorts to working in a shady night club to pay the bills while Bones takes a different route. He finds an overgrown path of street lights to a flooded town, of which his neighbor Rat (Saoirse Ronan) says cast a spell on their home. The story itself often takes a backseat to the delightful depravity of the inhabited wasteland, so when its narrative loses steam, I was still hypnotized. Lost River gushes with visual metaphors that catch your eye and clue us in on the story. For example, a scene has Bones watching as a bike lit on fire rolls in front of him, then cuts to the dream-killer Bully staring at Bones and his bag of copper. This is in-your-face storytelling, showing us the obvious squashing of Bones’ desire to escape. He can’t leave by car, or even by bicycle, the literal vehicle of adolescence. Most people won’t catch these things. Audiences have shifted from interpreting to being thoroughly explained. Lost River is an excellent film. You just have to be willing to work for it.
Similar to the polarizing French director Leos Carax, widely known for making unmercifully taxing and obscure films, Gosling displays a natural talent both behind the camera and as the sole screenwriting credit to Lost River. Like Carax, he embraces the power of filmmaking, creating truly daring cinema in our current catering stock of offerings. They both serve the chef’s special. You’ll clean your plate or you’ll send it back. Either way, you will undoubtedly appreciate the effort to create something new. Visually, it’s lurid – blinding even – mixing classic French New Wave iconoclastic ideals with the low-key character and atmospheric drive of the likes of David Gordon Green and Terrence Malick. It all comes together in a way that is definitely demanding for the viewer, but never loses touch with its characters or the social, economic, and material collapse of this truly unique storyworld that’s been created.
Thus far Lost River has received almost entirely negative reviews, mostly boiled down to a critique of style over substance. And in some parts that’s true. There is about a 15 minute respite where it nearly lost me. But to say that this film lacks story, or that it is a stylized representation of the American Dream, is to minimalize said story device as a whole. As previously noted, this is about escapism, whether it be psychological or physical, and leaving behind the trappings of a woebegone home. Lost River may not have all of the right answers, but it knows what questions to pose for its audience. With the outstanding palette of a forgotten Detroit (where the film was shot) and a piercing soundtrack and score, Lost River’s rippling, uncompromising effect will trickle through your mind like an arresting and rainbowesque downpour of Agent Orange.
“Everybody’s looking for a better life somewhere.”
Rating: 4 out of 5