Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Lost River (2015) - Movie Review
Remember Ryan Gosling? That guy who became the toast of the town back in 2011 thanks to the unexpected success of Drive, then just seemed to largely disappear from the public spotlight? Unless you’re among the confounding number of The Notebook fans, that is? That’s not to say he just isn’t working anymore, as he was in the surprisingly decent Gangster Squad as well as the upcoming Adam McKay flick The Big Short; just that it seems like he didn’t make the best use of his rejuvenated exposure. Probably the two big contributors to why this is is as a result of two films he made after Drive: One of them was Only God Forgives, a film by the same director that wasn’t nearly as well received by the general public nor by critics. The other was his debut as writer/director that… got probably the most perplexing response in recent years. As in, it got both a standing ovation and an audible collection of booing when it premiered at Cannes. Well, no matter happens in the following review, I am guaranteed to disappoint someone. Fine by me.

The plot: Single mother Billy (Christine Hendricks) and her two sons Bones (Iain De Caestacker) and Franky live in the slums of Detroit, with Bones being forced to scavenge abandoned houses to keep the family fed while keeping out of the way of local thug Bully (Matt Smith). After a fateful meeting with local bank manager Dave (Ben Mendelsohn), she agrees to a job in an underground club located beneath the town reservoir. As Billy is thrown further into the world of depravity located under the surface, Billy and his friend Rat (Saoirse Ronan) have to rescue her and “break the spell”.

Gosling’s time working with Nicolas Winding Refn must have paid off because this carries a similar hypnotic trance-like quality to it. The bold use of colour, the slow and almost mystical analog soundtrack, the striking imagery at work like the burning houses and interiors of the underworld theatre; they all contribute to the fantastical setting where dream logic seems to reign supreme. However, more than Refn, this film comes across like if Harmony Korine ever attempted to make a more whimsical fairy tale. This uses the backdrop of downtrodden America same as he does, except this doesn’t follow the usual voyeuristic exploitation of the middle class that Korine regularly takes part in. Instead, it treats the characters that are below the poverty line with a certain respect and allow them their dignity. It offers a rather confronting depiction of life in the slums of Detroit, where Devil’s Night has given people a taste for pyromania and what’s left over gets stripped for metal to be sold for scrap. Given what surrounds them, these characters need all the dignity that they can get.

This features an… interesting cast of characters. Ronan feels she was told she was going to be in an M. Night Shyamalan film with how lifeless she comes across as, and Rat doesn’t really make a real impact as a result. Mendelsohn is having a little too much fun, given how this is the guy who is not only quoting Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Birdy Nam Nam throughout the film, not to mention a certain dance sequence that might be one of the most mindfrag-inducing things I’ve ever encountered. Seriously, I can’t even put into words how strange that moment is, but Mendelsohn is definitely enjoying every moment he’s given and he delivers his oddly pop song dialogue rather well. Smith as Bully might have one of the best character introductions I’ve seen this year, with him just roaring about he owns this motherfucking town. However, even with how bombastic his portrayal can get, he manages to balance it out with some softer moments as well like his interactions with Rat. Barbara Steele as Rat’s grandmother Belladonna doesn’t even get any lines, and yet the screen time she gets of her just staring at old videos of her and her husband is surprisingly potent in… some kind of feeling. Yeah, the dream state this film exists in makes a lot of little details difficult to iron out. Not that it’s gonna stop me from trying, though.

The Detroit backdrop was ideal for this story, considering how a lot of it deals with the rampant destruction of homes in order to create new ones. The Motor City deals with a lot of burnt-down houses on an unfortunately regular basis. It adds some decent weight to the predicament faced by Billy and her son, considering the stripping down of houses for metals to sell is, again, a common occurrence in the poorer neighbourhoods. Thank you, Danny Brown, or else I wouldn’t know any of this. However, beyond using Detroit’s poverty stakes to add to the twisted fairy tale idea, there also seems to be a certain motif involving violence as entertainment. As much as the implications of such reading have for Gosling’s true intentions with this film, I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.
It’s almost as if there was a need to comment on modern film audiences and their attitudes to the bloodier side of the art. Chalk it up to the still-misnamed trend of ‘torture porn’, but today’s filmgoers do have more of a taste for the red stuff.

We see this through the performers in the underworld theatre literally shedding blood for their art because, basically, it’s what the audience wants. Dave himself quips about how all they’re doing is fulfilling a need for that people have. Cut to above the surface and Bully shows the potential end result of that bloodlust. When all that is being fed to you is the most extreme sense of emotions, namely violence and anger, it’ll eventually be all that you can identify with. When Bully pets Rat’s pet rat (which I think is meant to be a euphemism, but I can’t tell; maybe it’s just how Smith is playing it), we see that he is unable to really process the idea of the more precious things in the world with anything other than bloodshed. Maybe this is a call for more psychologically, rather than viscerally, effective art; a means to try and convince people to go for something more substantial and thought-provoking, rather than just licking their lips at the blood being spilt for the sake of performance. I sense an attempt by Gosling to subconsciously make us root for this film more than we should, possibly. Or, in a slightly less pretentious light, maybe it’s drawing a parallel between the destruction of homes and the kind of mindset that fuels it; it’s almost like people enjoying watching others suffer.

All in all, as you can probably tell from my ramblings above, I’m still not entirely sure what the point was of the film as a whole. Gosling definitely shows flair for imagery and atmosphere, even if it is pretty derivative, the acting is hazy but works really well in places and the soundtrack is mesmerizing, but the dream logic this film employs can be a little too thick to cut through at times. It’s worth a watch for the imagery alone, as this at least feels like there’s a genuine point to it besides just looking nice, but be warned that it’s not the most coherent thing in the world.

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