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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Why does food taste better when we Instagram it?

Delay leads to increased pleasure when you set up a perfect shot of your dinner.

Been on holiday? Take any snaps? Of course you did – but if you’re anything like me, your friends and family didn’t make it into many of them. Frankly, I can only hope that Mr Whippy and I will still be mates in sixty years, because I’m going to have an awful lot of pictures of him to look back on.

Once a decidedly niche pursuit, photographing food is now almost as popular as eating it, and if you thought that the habit was annoying at home, it is even worse when it intrudes on the sacred peace of a holiday. Buy an ice cream and you’ll find yourself alone with a cone as your companion rushes across a four-lane highway to capture his or hers against the azure sea. Reach for a chip before the bowl has been immortalised on social media and get your hand smacked for your trouble.

It’s a trend that sucks the joy out of every meal – unless, that is, you’re the one behind the camera. A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that taking pictures of food enhances our pleasure in it. Diners at the food court of a farmers’ market in Philadelphia were asked either to photograph their meal or to eat “as you normally would”, then were questioned about how they found it. Those in the photography group reported that not only did they enjoy their meal more, but they were “significantly more immersed in the experience” of eating it.

This backs up evidence from previous studies, including one from this year in the Journal of Consumer Marketing, which found that participants who had been asked to photograph a red velvet cake – that bleeding behemoth of American overindulgence – later rated it as significantly tastier than those who had not.

Interestingly, taking a picture of a fruit salad had no effect on its perceived charms, but “when descriptive social norms regarding healthy eating [were] made salient”, photographing these healthier foods did lead to greater enjoyment. In other words, if you see lots of glossy, beautifully lit pictures of chia seed pudding on social media, you are more likely to believe that it’s edible, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
This may seem puzzling. After all, surely anything tastes better fresh from the kitchen rather than a protracted glamour shoot – runny yolks carefully split to capture that golden ooze, strips of bacon arranged just so atop plump hemispheres of avocado, pillowy burger buns posed to give a glimpse of meat beneath. It is hardly surprising that 95 million posts on Instagram, the photo-sharing site, proudly bear the hashtag #foodporn.

However, it is this delay that is apparently responsible for the increase in pleasure: the act of rearranging that parsley garnish, or moving the plate closer to the light, increases our anticipation of what we are about to eat, forcing us to consider how delicious it looks even as we forbid ourselves to take a bite until the perfect shot is in the bag. You could no doubt achieve the same heightened sense of satisfaction by saying grace before tucking in, but you would lose the gratification that comes from imagining other people ogling your grilled Ibizan sardines as they tuck in to an egg mayonnaise at their desk.

Bear in mind, though, that the food that is most successful on Instagram often has a freakish quality – lurid, rainbow-coloured bagel-croissant hybrids that look like something out of Frankenstein’s bakery are particularly popular at the moment – which may lead to some unwise menu choices in pursuit of online acclaim.

On the plus side, if a diet of giant burgers and salted-caramel lattes leaves you feeling queasy, take heart: if there is one thing that social media likes more than #avotoast, it is embarrassing oversharing. After a week of sickening ice-cream shots, a sickbed selfie is guaranteed to cheer up the rest of us. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser