Lost River (2015)     ★

So, maybe I was too hard on Only God Forgives.

It’s a bit of an understatement to say that actor-turned-writer/director Ryan Gosling wears his influences on his sleeve with Lost River, his debut film that was famously, and correctly, booed at Cannes last year. Lynch, Malick, Noé, and shades of films he’s starred in recently from the likes of Derek Cianfrance and Nicolas Winding Refn, all run amok throughout Lost River. But for all its attempts at homage it only comes up empty, bleeding together an endless series of meaningless, emotionless, and weightless scenes into a soulless exercise in fanboy pretension. Sadly, just about the only thing Gosling does succeed at with Lost River is trivializing the struggles of those in poverty and threatened with losing their homes.

A first-time novelist might take pride in recognizably aping the sophisticated styles of legendary authors like Dickens or Faulkner or Joyce, but it doesn’t work that way with cinema; one cannot simply skate by on terms like “Lynchian” alone. Cranking up the sound design, and lingering on the innocuous, and being purposely vague with infantile stabs at surrealism does not automatically imbue a film with meaning, and the audible distaste from audiences who dare to make it through this garbage is a direct commentary on Gosling’s failure to inspire any kind of deafening silence with his vision. Lost River is a uniquely vapid work of art, the product of an artist who has a burning desire to be provocative, but who has nothing to say, no experience of the reality of the characters he’s created, and no concept of internal logic, dreamlike or otherwise, which is the calling card of many of the films he copies.

Shot in a dilapidated part of Detroit, Michigan, Lost River‘s primary concern is with a single mother of two named Billy (played by Mad Men‘s Christina Hendricks) who falls behind on her mortgage and is forced to get a job when the bank threatens to demolish her house, and right away we sense the corrupting influence of the insincerity of the entire project. I wonder, where else might a Canadian born child actor living in Hollywood who heard a few Eminem songs choose as the setting for his lower class (in more ways than one) commentary of American economics? And no, before you raise your finger, that criticism isn’t schadenfreude, but worthwhile in considering how such a wannabe-avant-garde piece of cinema found its way to such an obvious milieu. Billy goes to the bank and meets with branch manager Dave (Ben Mendelsohn), who insults her with the most asinine barrage of Tarantino-esque dialogue extrapolation since the last Rob Zombie movie, and in what is perhaps the worst scene in the film. And poor Christina just sits there with a look on her face that can only be described as “trusting your director.” Her character, meanwhile, takes the brunt of Gosling’s abuse, who needs to have houses torn down around her and a meeting at the bank before she decides to get a job, and on Dave’s insistence what a job it is, as some sort of victim for the sexually repressed upper class. Suffice it to say the place Billy finds herself is nowhere near as offensive as the insinuation from Gosling that eliminating Dave is all it will take to save her house. Paralleling this is her son Bones’ adventures stealing copper wire around town, and inciting the wrath of local gangster Franky who lays claim to all the copper. His story leads him into the arms of a local girl (Saoirse Ronan) who is of course trapped in her own bizarre circumstances, and like a typical indie drama he must help her. But all of this pales in comparison to the shamefully offensive and ignorant treatment of Billy, who is not so much a character as an excuse for Gosling’s manufactured weirdness.

Lost River is just a lost cause. With a cast full of people from other films Gosling has starred in, and cinematography by Gaspar Noé mainstay Benoît Debie, and a score by Johnny Jewel that sounds like B-sides from his contributions to Refn’s Drive soundtrack, and a wealth of shots that make you think of other, far more accomplished films, Lost River is a literal embarrassment of riches that should have never left its director’s head. Trash like this gives art-films a bad name, and its existence is a black eye for cinema overall. If I thought this film had a clue during any one of its ninety minutes I might be more forgiving, but it’s just weirdness for weirdness’ sake, a film that wants to be Blue Velvet, but ends up being Southland Tales, and while Lost River might make me want to sit down with Gosling, have a beer and talk movies, it is not something I would ever consider subjecting myself to again.

The Verdict: Pan