Matt Smith as Bully in Lost River.
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Ryan Gosling's directorial debut, Lost River, proves he isn't perfect after all

This film isn’t bad. Worse: it’s mediocre.

It was no secret that Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, Lost River, was poorly regarded, even roundly mocked, at last year’s Cannes film festival, where it premiered shortly after shedding its most memorable component – its original title, How to Catch a Monster. But even the word on the withered grapevine doesn’t prepare one for how mediocre it is. It isn’t bad. Bad can be good. Bad can be shoots-for-the-moon-and-misses. Mediocre is far worse.

Mediocrity, in this instance at least, denotes complacency, and Lost River exhibits on every level a “will-this-do?” quality. Gosling isn’t the first actor-turned-director to confuse the skillset on which he calls in front of the camera with the one demanded behind it. Finding himself lacking the depth of vision necessary to sustain an entire movie, he has simply resorted to doing what many errant schoolchildren have done before him. He’s copied the other boys’ homework. In this case, those classmates happen to be the John Huston of Wise Blood and the Harmony Korine of Gummo, as well as David Lynch, Terrence Malick, Philip Ridley and Nicholas Winding Refn (with whom Gosling made Drive and Only God Forgives). No wonder, in amongst that lot, that there’s no room for the film to develop its own personality.

Gosling, who also wrote the screenplay, hasn’t spent too much time delineating plot, character and motivation – it’s unusual to find a film in which the constituent elements float so far from any context that the function of entire scenes is rendered moot. But I will give it a go on his behalf. Bones (Iain De Caestecker) is a teenager in a dilapidated city (the film was shot in Detroit) who breaks apart derelict houses and sells the materials them to a local scrap dealer. In doing so, he angers a local bully, helpfully named Bully (Matt Smith), who is chauffeured through the desolate streets in a convertible, in which he sits in an armchair, declaring through a loudhailer that he owns the city.

I suppose I could find out why Bully wants to kill Bones simply by checking other reviews or consulting the production notes given out by the distributor, but that would not be true to the experience of watching the movie, which doesn’t go to any trouble to explain the animosity. Given the grotesque close-ups of Bully howling at the sky, we are supposed to deduce that he is simply wacko. But even the most pitiless movie monsters – Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter, Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet – have an authentic emotional foundation. It must have been quite a shock for Matt Smith of Doctor Who, hired to play the villain in a Ryan Gosling art film, to discover that his character had less psychological plausibility than the Timelord.

The trailer for Ryan Gosling’s “Lost River”

Bones initiates a tentative indie-movie flirtation (simpering, coy eye contact, no bodily fluids) with Rat (Saoirse Ronan), a local girl who stops by to watch his television and lives with her grandmother. Granny wears a funeral veil and hasn’t said a word since the nearby town was flooded (there’s a haunting shot of the streetlamps which protrude from the water suddenly lighting up, but it’s too close to a similar image from Spirited Away to qualify as original). Rat suggests that a memento from the flooded town might break the curse on Granny, so Bones dives down into this mini-Atlantis. Not in daylight like any sensible person but at night when he can hardly see a thing. Why? The same reason he runs down the middle of a road rather than on the pavement. Because it looks cool.

Bones’s mother, Billy (Christina Hendricks), goes to discuss her mortgage arrears with the bank manager, Dave (Ben Mendelsohn). Rather than talking interest rates and fixed terms, he encourages her to take a job at a macabre nightclub where fake killings are carried out on stage to the delight of a clientele who seem permanently confined to the premises (the streets outside are always empty). You’d have to say that this wasn’t your average trip to the bank. But Billy rolls with it and soon she is pretending to slice off her own face with a scalpel and being encased in a plastic sarcophagus. Well, it’s a living.

Periodically, Gosling punctuates the action with images (a house burning in slow motion, Badlands-style, and collapsing in on itself) that might be eye-catching if the film were not so muddy-looking and poorly-lit. It seems perverse to hire a cinematographer, Benoit Debie, who is known for visual richness (his credits include Enter the Void and Spring Breakers) and then ask him to strip every shot of flair and distinctiveness. But then there’s a lot in Lost River about which audiences will be unclear. The one resounding point of clarity is that this vanity project would never have got off the ground if most of the world were not besotted with its creator. This movie marks that moment in any relationship when you realise your ideal partner isn’t perfect after all. The honeymoon is over. How we deal with life with Ryan Gosling now we know he’s not infallible may be the making of all of us.

Lost River is released on Friday.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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The filmmaker forcing the British Board of Film Classification to watch Paint Drying for hours on end

The film does what it says on the tin.

Would you watch paint dry for several hours? If you work for the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), you might not have much choice in the matter. As a protest against problems he sees within the organisation, British filmmaker and journalist Charlie Lyne has launched a Kickstarter to send the BBFC a film he’s made called Paint Drying. It does what it says on the tin: the film is a single, unbroken shot lasting several hours (its length is determined by the amount of money raised) of white paint slowly drying on a brick wall. Once Lyne has paid the fee, the board are obliged to watch it.

“I’ve been fascinated by the BBFC – and censorship in general – for ages, but it was only when I went to a BBFC open day earlier this year that I felt properly frustrated by the whole thing,” Lyne told me. “There was a lot of discussion that day about individual decisions the board had made, and whether they were correct, but no discussions whatsoever about whether the BBFC should have the kind of power it has in the first place.”

The 2003 Licencing Act imposes the following rules on cinemas in the UK: cinemas need licenses to screen films, which are granted by local authorities to the cinemas in their area. These licences include a condition requiring the admission of children to any film to normally be restricted in accordance with BBFC age ratings. This means that in order to be shown easily in cinemas across the country, films need an age rating certificate from the BBFC. This is where, for Lyne, problems begin: a certificate costs around £1,000 for a feature film of average length, which, he says, “can prove prohibitively expensive” for many independent filmmakers.

It’s a tricky point, because even Lyne acknowledges on his blog that “this is actually a very reasonable fee for the services rendered”. The BBFC pointed out to me that its income is “derived solely from the fees it charges for its services”. So is the main issue the cost, or the role he feels the BBFC play in censorship? The Kickstarter page points out that the BBFC's origins are hardly liberal on that front:

The British Board of Film Classification (previously known as the British Board of Film Censors) was established in 1912 to ensure films remained free of 'indecorous dancing', 'references to controversial politics' and 'men and women in bed together', amongst other perceived indiscretions. 

Today, it continues to censor and in some cases ban films, while UK law ensures that, in effect, a film cannot be released in British cinemas without a BBFC certificate.

It might be true “in effect”, but this is not a legal fact. The 2003 Licensing Act states, “in particular circumstances, the local authority can place their own restrictions on a film. Film distributors can always ask a local authority for a certificate for a film banned by the BBFC, or a local category for a film that the BBFC has not classified.” The BBFC point out that “film makers wishing to show their films at cinemas in the UK without a BBFC certificate may do so with permission from the local authority for the area in which the cinema is located.” There you have it – the BBFC does not have the absolute final word on what can be shown at your local Odeon.

While the BBFC cannot officially stop cinemas from showing films, they can refuse to categorise them in any category: something Lyne says mostly happens with “quite extreme horror films and pornography, especially feminist pornography made by people like Petra Joy and Pandora Blake, but it could just as easily be your favourite movie, or mine.” This makes large-scale release particularly difficult, as each individiual local authority would have to take the time and resources to overrule the decision. This means that, to get screened easily in cinemas, a film essentially needs a BBFC-approved rating. Lyne adds, “I think films should also be allowed to be released unrated, as they are in the US, so that independent filmmakers with no money and producers of niche, extreme content aren’t at the mercy of such an expensive, censorial system.”

Does he think Paint Drying can make that a possibility? “I realise this one small project isn’t going to completely revolutionise British film censorship or anything, but I hope it at least gets people debating the issue. The BBFC has been going for a hundred years, so it’s got tradition on its side, but I think it's important to remember how outraged we’d all be if an organisation came along tomorrow and wanted to censor literature, or music. There's no reason film should be any different.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.