In Defence of Ryan Gosling’s ‘Lost River’

In 2015, Peter Bradshaw wrote a review for The Guardian in which he described Lost River as “a fantastically annoying film”. Just one example of the host of criticism Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut was bombarded with following its initial release. This anger can be rationalised; it is cynical and frustrating that a ‘pretty-boy’ actor can bypass years of struggling to break into film production, hire whoever he wants and simply have a crack at directing. However, Lost River excels beyond such egotistical venture. I agree that in moments Gosling departs from appreciation or intertextuality and falls into dubious territory; his attempts at homage sometimes verging more into the territory of plagiarism (of which David Lynch’s Blue Velvet is the most blatant victim). However, I do not believe Lost River to be wholly deserving of the ridicule and repudiation it initially garnered.

In his article, Bradshaw condemns Lost River as “fatuous and shallow” and it is this decree of shallowness with which I take particular umbrage. In a promo for his masterclass, David Lynch declares, “if you want to make a feature-length film all you need to do is get 70 ideas”, and whilst Gosling perhaps does not reach this dogma of 70, Lost River certainly seems to emerge from this school of thought. Indeed, it is Gosling’s obvious dedication to ‘ideas’ that earns him the label of shallow from Bradshaw. The film jumps from image to image and is clearly born from multiple disjointed motifs. But Lost River also boasts moments of startling originality. It does not merely rely on a moody atmosphere, but loyally commits to staggering and unexpected displays of violence where necessary. Lost River’s commitment to ‘ideas’ is not a scuttering after the cool but an engaged devotion.

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In its opening sequence, Lost River includes a shot of protagonist Bones (Iain De Caestecker), a double of a younger Gosling, running on the spot alongside a decrepit old car, in the driver’s seat of which sits his infant brother Frankie (Landyn Stewart). In this moment, Gosling creates a tension that will govern the rest of the film; a construction of time and movement which is overtly contrived. Lost River inhabits a duplicitous temporality, oscillating between recent and distant pasts whilst simultaneously making bids at the future. Much of the music and costume belong to lost generations and indeed many of the town’s occupants seem paused in time. Larry Clinton’s version of ‘Deep Purple’, recorded in 1939, underscores children playing with lightsabers in abandoned music halls; Gosling reaches for a nostalgia that is both personal and culturally constructed. A contemporary Detroit provides the inspiration for Gosling’s dystopia. The Detroit of Lost River contains pockets of innovation beyond, but not too distant from, a contemporary world. The advent of sinister sex-tech in particular resonates with a seemingly imminent future and indeed one that we have made startling edges towards in the five years since the film’s release. Gosling’s Detroit reverberates in a specific, transitory reality, suspended moments from the real. In an interview promoting the film, Gosling declared “there are lost rivers everywhere in, not just in Detroit”. From the film’s opening sequence, it is clear that Gosling is interested in surfacing these lost rivers of American cultural consciousness.

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Christina Hendricks plays Billy, a mother who must yield to sex work in desperation to protect her sons and save their home. Failing to pay off mounting debt, Billy begins working for Dave (Ben Mendelsohn), a seedy banker-come-nightclub owner. Hendricks and Mendelsohn’s relationship is perfectly pastiche; they appear frozen, mimicking and engaging, in the eternal cultural symbol of frightened (but sexy!) woman turning to power-wielding man for help. Billy’s makeup supplants Hendricks with this guise, lips too pink, smudged eyeliner and tarnished dyed ginger hair convey the impression of a woman who has already been crying, or indeed might be even be crying right now. Gosling perpetuates this image for all its worth, for a long time resisting to disclose the nature of Billy’s sacrifice. Dave’s cabaret bar warps expectation; he is interested in the theatricality of voyeurism as women perform gory strip-teases in which more than items of clothing are removed. We are reminded of Lionel Shriver’s claim in We Need to Talk About Kevin: “Did you know that Americans stare at pregnant women? In the low birth rate of the first World, gestation really is a novelty, and in the days of T&A on every newsstand, real pornography – conjuring intrusively intimate visions of spread hams, incontinent seepage, that eely umbilical slither.” The prevalence and accessibility of porn in the contemporary world reduces its taboo. In a world where pornography is so readily available, it is not sex which excites but a deeper intimacy, manifested here in abject gore. Indeed, this notion of a need in the contemporary for the salacious or pornographic to reach instead to a gruesome expression of intimacy is corroborated in Daniel Goldhaber’s 2018 feature debut Cam. In which cam girl Lola (Madeline Brewer) stages similar displays of feigned violence alongside soft porn in order for her channel to climb up the ranks of camming site FREEGIRLSLIVE.com, which demands innovation from its sex workers. Like Lost River, Cam’s sexual violence is endowed with a playful dousing of pink neon lights – a fun new sinister gaze for the contemporary. The cabaret is Lost River’s most shining moment of originality, ratifying Lynch’s decree of the importance of individual ‘ideas’.

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Aside from a collection of ideas, in Lost River Gosling is intent on creating something visually thrilling. Cinematographer Benoît Debie’s previous work on films like Spring Breakers has clearly influenced Lost River.  However, he seems more committed to flaunting and subverting darkness in this work. The film shudders between the previously mentioned fun neon pinks and confronting POV shots from demolition vehicles; again, an iteration of the contested space of stasis the present attempts to occupy. Indeed, these erratic and fragmentary cinematographic styles accentuate Billy’s frustrated attempts at solidifying a single moment in which her family is held safe.

(I am however reminded, as I so often am, of this confronting tweet by @kiddypool).

For all its criticism of lacking distinctive style, Lost River seems to know exactly what it is; a collection of ‘cool’ ideas and isolated motifs. And whilst this may seem an empty or superficial basis for a film, Gosling resolutely weaves these moments together to create a decrepit and decidedly uncanny locale in which we apprehend, and I think rather beautifully so, brief dreamlike reflections of familiarity. Lost River is undoubtedly pretentious, in a glaring way which denies ignorance. However, Gosling’s treatment by the media has been unfair, Lost River is a purposeful expression of a promising artist.

by Joanna Mason

Joanna Mason (preferably Joey) is 22 and is studying in Glasgow, Scotland. Some of her favourite films are Lost Highway, Withnail and I, Frances Ha and Videodrome.

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