SXSW Film Review: Lost River (USA, 2015)

lostriver

When Ryan Gosling premiered his Directorial debut Lost River to a packed house at Cannes last year, it’s fair to say the odds were stacked against him. He couldn’t have picked harsher critics to premiere his film to. This is a crowd who have rarely been fans of Actors turned Directors. Do you remember The Brave – Johnny Depp’s first and only Directorial effort? Of course you don’t. Cannes critics made sure it was a quickly forgotten upon its 1997 premiere.

Add in the film’s striking style, alluding to other divisive directors like Nicolas Winding Refn, and you’ve taken an even bigger gamble. So with this in mind, it should come as a little surprise that the film was far from well received when it was witnessed in the iconic French city. But now, as it’s about to see an official release, we have to ask: was the criticism justified?

I had the opportunity to see the film at SXSW earlier this month, where the film enjoyed its US premiere. The festival is famous for its friendly and supportive crowds – with fans well outweighing the critics in the room – and for a first time Director like Gosling, it felt like the much more natural place for him to show off the film he describes as “deeply personal”.  The reaction was a much more positive one and will hopefully set the film off on a better note as it approaches its limited release (a byproduct of the negative response from Cannes, unfortunately). Though some of the criticism is justified, this is nonetheless a film that fans of the actor – who also wrote the film – should definitely be given the opportunity to experience.

The film stars Christina Hendricks as Billy, a mother of two who is literally doing everything she can to save her family’s home, in a dying city. Filmed in the dilapidated parts of Detroit, Michigan, Gosling has masterfully utilised a real world environment to shape the setting for his debut. Iain De Casestecker leads the film powerfully as Bones, Billy’s son, a character literally stripping out copper piping from the walls of buildings to make ends meet. Saorise Ronan, Rat, is Iain’s neighbour and romantic interest, who lives with a Miss Havisham-esque Grandmother. Played by the legendary Barbara Steele, this old woman lets the days run by as she watches videos of her deceased husband.

Along the way we meet Matt Smith, who plays “Bully” a little too convincingly – a character that reminded me a bit of Denis Hopper’s Deacon in Waterworld, or any of the bad guys from George Miller’s Mad Max series. A little bit exaggerated, but wonderfully compelling – a character there to represent a whole lot of crazy seeming to run a world gone mad. Australia’s Ben Mendelsohn, meanwhile, delivers a brilliant – and haunting – performance as Dave, the owner of a club where Hendrick’s Billy is lured into a bizarre underground world that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Terry Gilliam film. The final scene in that club is terrifying – though look out for some sweet dance moves from Mendelsohn along the way.

And then there’s the “curse” that Rat believes exists over them and the “Lost River”. This is where the fantasy element to the story comes into play, and in many ways it’s where the gems of the plot can be found – if only they spent more time with it. Amongst this world of darkness, dilapidation, degradation and destruction, there is the hope of a legend to remove the curse – something that seems to be forgotten through much of the film, only to re-emerge in the final minutes; an epic climax to say the least.

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Ultimately, the problem Gosling has faced with this film is in his approach for style over substance. There are moments of brilliance, and perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the project is that with a few tweaks in the editing room, and a couple of extra scenes, it could have been better. I loved the fantasy element – the curse, the underwater town… – and wanted more of it. When we’re greeted to an animated video explaining some of the history of the area, it was like something straight out Lost. It was an inspired aspect to the film that deserved the attention of the lens, rather than some of his more aesthetic choices along the way that seemed to serve as a distraction to the film’s redeeming qualities.

But for me, this is where the criticisms end. This is a breathtaking film to watch; be prepared to be transfixed from start to finish whether you want to or not. Benoît Debie’s cinematography is gorgeous, and the “neo-noir” grading is hypnotic, and at times beautiful. Ugly, but beautiful… in a way that may recall scenes from Only God Forgives. Johnny Jewel, meanwhile, delivers a stunning score, that adds to the tension and ties the film together nicely, while the actors really do give it their all. There are some stunning performances in this film.

Lost River is a sound, though flawed, first effort from Gosling. Yes it borrows a lot from those who came before – as well as his contemporaries – but what new filmmaker doesn’t rest on the qualities of those they admire? Perhaps Gosling has just been a bit more brazen about it than most. But hopefully, unlike Depp before him, this isn’t the last we see of him behind the Director’s chair. What he’s displayed is a quality to tell a story outside of the conventional narrative, which is something that seems to have driven most of his career choices over the last decade. From Lars and the Real Girl, through to Drive, and everything in between and since, Gosling has always surprised us. Should we be so shocked that his debut film attempts to do the same? Not at all.

Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

This film had its US Premiere at SXSW (where it was reviewed) and will see a limited theatrical release (alongside VOD distribution) on April 10th in the US. No news has been announced in regards to an Australian release, though all signs are pointing to a Direct-to-DVD scenario.

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Larry Heath

Founding Editor and Publisher of the AU review. You can follow him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.

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