Sometimes it’s gotta suck to be Ryan Gosling. Not often, but sometimes. Everything sucks sometimes, right? I’m sure being a talented actor & a beautiful human specimen is mostly all perks, but what if no one takes you seriously when you try to let loose the weirdo artist lurking under your perfect skin? Finalizing his gradual transition from pint-sized Mouseketeer to big boy artist, Gosling recently stepped behind the camera to write & direct his debut feature, Lost River. Critically-speaking, it didn’t go well. The film was panned on the festival circuit as “derivative” “poverty porn” and lost its wide distribution detail in the process, eventually being damned to direct-to-VOD status. Gosling’s first outing as a creator instead of a performer failed to secure accolades and the talented sex beast was left having an uncharacteristically bad day in the sun. The dirty secret is that Lost River is actually pretty damn good for a debut feature. It’s far from flawless, but there’s very little justification for the vicious critical beating it received on the festival circuit. If the film were directed by a fresh-out-of-film-school nobody it most likely would’ve had a better chance in the critical eye. For once it didn’t pay to be for Ryan Gosling to be a wealthy, well-known pretty boy.
Both the “derivative” & “poverty porn” complaints feel somewhat like they were aimed specifically at Gosling’s pretty boy swag instead of his final product. The claim that the film is “derivative” is technically true, but not really a problem considering the sources Gosling pulls from here. Names like Lynch, Bava, Korine, Mallick, and Refn are sure to be conjured by any discerning audience, but what film buff wouldn’t love pieces of those five aesthetics gathered in one neon-soaked, dilapidated package? Speaking of dilapidated, the film may also technically substantiate that “poverty porn” critique, as it pulls beautiful images out of economic despair, turning what remains of Detroit into a ludicrous dream world. I also see this complaint as more of an asset than a problem, especially considering how the images tie into the film’s thematic details (foreclosed houses, stealing copper from blighted properties, etc.). Also, it’s an aesthetic that’s worked wonders before in titles like George Washington, Gummo, and Beasts of the Southern Wild.
The one legitimate qualm I found with Lost River is that it is poorly paced. There’s a calm, unrushed progression to the movie that plays right into the stereotype that art films have to be boring to be taken seriously. At least while the run time is glacially gliding along, there are plenty of worthwhile images to chew on: flaming bicycles, pink neon lights, glistening Casio keyboards, underwater dinosaur statues, slow-motion house fires, and so on. That’s not even getting into horror legend Barbara Steele’s hermetic mourning or fellow-perfect-specimen Christina Hendricks’ Tree of Life cosplay & blood-soaked burlesque. These images appear slowly, but each with great individual impact, backed by the sleek nightmare sounds of Chromatics genius Johnny Jewel. They’re definitely a sight to behold and it’s a sight I expect to revisit often, even if they do work better as still images than as a feature film. Gosling most certainly has an eye and once he tightens aspects like pacing & narrative, he has untold potential to make something truly great. I just hope that he hasn’t been discouraged from making more films by the negative reception his debut garnered. Lost River may not be a perfect work, but it does demonstrate a wealth of promise and it’d be a shame if that promise were snuffed out in its infancy by sourpuss critics.