Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Review: "Lost River" Has a Lot of Scrappy Charm in its Unevenness

There is a legacy to films that were booed at the Cannes Film Festival. Titles like Taxi Driver, The Tree of Life and Inglourious Basterds have all faced the harshest of criticism from the most prestigious of festivals. There is an odd disconnect that comes with the territory that almost builds a film's legacy before it ever reaches the public's consciousness. The most recent entry on this list is director Ryan Gosling's Lost River, which bills itself as a twisted fairy tale. Much like the fellow booed films, it is a distinguished work and one that takes a specific mindset to enjoy. However, it may not nearly be as successful as any of them, despite occasionally showing signs of something far more brilliant than its notorious reputation.

The film is set on the backdrop of Detroit, Michigan: a city that is wafting through peril as homes are destroyed and others flooded. Characters like Billy (Christina Hendricks) work in gaudy vaudeville shows predicated on violent showcases. Others deal with the brash powers of leader Bully (Matt Smith), whose surveillance of the city involves him driving around in a car and yelling his rules out of a megaphone. Other major characters like Rat (Soirse Ronan) and Bones (Iain De Caestecker) also exist and look for ways to survive in a town build on the myth of a monster hiding in a nearby man-made lake where light poles stick out from the water. There's nothing conventional about the story from the lighting to the pacing. In fact, everything feels off.

To understand Gosling's intent, one probably should understand his most frequent recent collaborators. There's the dramatic complexity of Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines) which takes the narration into dark human recesses. There's the ultraviolent style of Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives) that is set alongside one of modern cinema's most interesting pallets that mix neon colors with pitch black scenery in disconcerting ways. There's even traces of Terrence Malick (the upcoming Weightless) that open the film. It is understandable that he would want to crib from the auteurs who made him a cult favorite. He even does it well enough, especially in moments where the styles clash into a chaotic visual ball of energy. Still, there's something to the screenplay that feels lacking.

For a debut film, this feels really assured and has a lot of striking moments. While the cinematography may be off and there's a few scenes of confusing purpose, he does come across as a director wishing to provide something new to cinema. It is a twisted fairy tale through a cynical gaze, choosing to unveil details with intent to disturb. It is a mixture of fantastical elements set aside a gritty drama that is shot with almost too much naturalism. The moments are jarring, but has enough personality to make performances by Ronan or the underrated Ben Mendelsohn matter. The only issue is that the film's story doesn't really feel substantial on first watch and the Refn influence of artistic darkness is at times unnecessary. 

In the end, the debut is a product more filled with promise than insight as to who Gosling will be behind the camera. Thankfully, he already feels assured and there's some magic to his scrappy production. Even the general concepts on display have moments of awe that few more mainstream films, let alone directorial debuts from former child stars, actually possess. It may not be the greatest debut in history, but it is far from the worst. It manages to avoid being pretentious within the uncertain moments that sometimes seem baffling. However, it is something that feels both personal and disconnected, an odd but effective balance. It is fairy tale like no other, which is probably the highest compliment someone can serve this film.

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