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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SRSLY #83: The Awards Special 2017

On the pop culture podcast this week: all the action from the Oscars, plus our own personal awards.

This is SRSLY, the pop culture podcast from the New Statesman. Here, you can find links to all the things we talk about in the show as well as a bit more detail about who we are and where else you can find us online.

Listen using the player below. . .

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SRSLY is hosted by Caroline Crampton and Anna Leszkiewicz, the NS’s assistant editor and editorial assistant. We’re on Twitter as @c_crampton and @annaleszkie, where between us we post a heady mixture of Serious Journalism, excellent gifs and regularly ask questions J K Rowling needs to answer.

The Links

Get on the waiting list for our Harry Potter quiz here and take part in our survey here.

Anna's report on the Oscars.

Our episodes about Oscar-nominated films La La Land, Moonlight, Hidden Figures, Lion and Jackie.

For next time:

Caroline is watching MTV’s Sweet/Vicious.

If you’d like to talk to us about the podcast or make a suggestion for something we should read or cover, you can email srslypod[at]gmail.com.

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See you next week!

PS If you missed #81, check it out here.