First came the boos, like an owl symphony, or a cattle crescendo. Then a smattering of defiant applause. Then the boos again. The antiphonal response could have gone on all afternoon, with catcalls winning in a landslide, but the critics at last year’s Cannes Film Festival had other movies to see. Suffice to say that Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut Lost River was the 2014 festival’s most enthusiastically derided entry. My longtime critical colleague and better half Mary Corliss, usually a temperate soul, jotted this observation in her notebook: “pretentious horseshit.”
Well, yes. But Lost River, which opens stateside April 10, merits a little sympathy. And Gosling, the Method-hunk star of such indie faves as Half Nelson, Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines, plus Hollywoodier fare like The Notebook, The Ides of March and Crazy, Stupid, Love, deserves some credit for this mad mashup of horror and social statement, crackpot fantasy and Sundance-style meandering. The movie wavers between the risible and the stupefying, between LOL and WTF.
To judge from the writer-director’s remarks, this collision of tones was premeditated. “I wanted to make this film because it’s a movie that I would want to see,” he wrote on his blog. “Like many children who grew up in the 1980s, I first approached the cinema through mainstream films. I was excited to shoot this kind of story, but with the language of filmmaker that I’ve acquired through the years.” His original title for the film was the very drive-in, midnight-movie How to Catch a Monster. Though he changed that to the more indie-sounding Lost River, the movie still goes for the feverish and lurid. It will appeal to people who would rather be outraged than bored.
In the fictional urban wasteland of Lost River — actually today’s Detroit, where the movie was shot — single mom Billy (Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks) is a part-time waitress raising her two sons, teenage Bones (Iain De Caestecker, the Scottish actor who plays Leo Fitz on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and a toddler. Bones likes the girl next door, Rat (Saoirse Ronan), so-called because her other closest friend is a large, amiable rat named Nick. This part of Lost River is ruled by a bully named Bully (ex-Dr. Who Matt Smith); he patrols the neighborhood in a convertible with an upholstered chair mounted on the back seat and shouts through a bullhorn, “Welcome to Bully Town.”
In another oddball Detroit movie, Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, the city’s coolest inhabitants were a pair of married, millennia-old vampires. Lost River could be called Only Losers Left Alive. Virtually all of the old residents have skipped town, leaving a cratered sump hole and a few stragglers with no option but to stay. One elderly black man advises Bones to “Head South and don’t stop till you see the palm trees.” (Fun fact: If you head due south from Detroit, the first place you hit is actually Canada.)
This part isn’t fantasy. As Gosling has said of Detroit, which he first visited when shooting The Ides of March, he saw “forty miles of abandoned neighborhoods and, within pockets of those neighborhoods, there were parents trying to raise their children on streets where houses were being burned and torn down around them.” It’s a nightscape of decay and crime that every big city cradles and nobody outside wants to think about.
Billy, who’s pretty naïve for a woman who’s lived for ages in this garbage can, is behind on her mortgage, and sleazy banker Dave (Animal Kingdom’s Ben Mendelsohn) tells her she’ll be evicted unless she goes to work at a nightclub he also owns — an upmarket sado-Dada joint that could have been dreamed up by David Lynch in collaboration with Dario Argento. The star dancer, Cat (Eva Mendes), doesn’t strip; she sexily mimes bloody disfiguration. Billy’s act involves painting her face read until it looks as those the skin had been flayed off.
Now for the weird part. Bones has discovered a flooded, subterranean amusement park, whose logo is a giant dinosaur head. “That’s why the whole [town] feels like it’s under water,” he says. Bones’ adventures merge with his fever dreams, until… well, until everything burns down or blows up. Which is what might happen to Detroit/Lost River just by atrophy or entropy.
The cast is game to accommodate Gosling’s strange scenario — from De Caestecker, clearly a young Gosling surrogate but without the pinup looks and torso, to Mendes and Mendelsohn, whom the director appeared with in The Place Beyond the Pines. Gosling gives them all plenty of breathing space, but this indie effort is not really an actors’ exercise. It’s an oneiric hymn to destruction, an Armageddon anthem — a movie to see, if at all, under the influence.
Every once in a while, prominent actors of the crazy stripe can entice a producers to back a weirdo project that they direct. In 1971 Dennis Hopper, fresh off Easy Rider, made a modern Western called The Last Movie. In 1997 Johnny Depp came to Cannes with The Brave, a hallucinogenic anti-masterpiece about an American Indian who agrees to die in a snuff film for the pleasure of Marlon Brando. The movies were insane but never boring. If they failed, it was because their makers tried something on a broad canvas that was bigger than they could manage.
Gosling’s movie is in that funhouse ballpark. Sometimes it’s tonic for an actor to get a crazy movie idea out of his system, and maybe into ours.