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.

Photo: Popperfoto
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How the Oval regained its shape: the famous cricket ground hosts its 100th Test

The challenge for Surrey is to ensure that the new fans drawn to the stadium in recent years keep coming.

Few stadiums have as rich a sporting history as the Oval. After opening its gates in 1845, it hosted England’s first home football international, the first FA Cup final, and Ireland’s inaugural rugby Test.

Though it took 35 years before a cricket Test match – the first ever in England – was played at the ground in Kennington, south London, it was worth waiting for. WG Grace scored 152 runs, setting the tone for many memorable performances  at the Oval. Among the highlights: Len Hutton’s 364 in 1938, still the highest Test score by an England batsman; Viv Richards’s double century and Michael Holding’s 14 wickets for the West Indies before an ecstatic crowd in 1976; England’s Ashes-clinching match in 2005, when a skunk-haired Kevin Pietersen thrashed the Australian attack.

But just five years later, in 2010, the Oval and its host club Surrey were in a bad way. For the first time since 1986, the first day of the annual Oval Test was not a sell-out, and attendances for county games were down. Finances were so stretched that Surrey made a dozen administrative staff redundant, and there was talk of insolvency. The club, which is owned by its 10,000 members and is a tenant of the Duchy of Cornwall, was “very close to a substantial crisis”, Paul Sheldon, then chief executive, said at the time.

Today that seems far away. On 27 July, the Oval hosted its 100th Test, the third match of the series between England and South Africa. The first day was sold out. And Surrey are now the richest first-class county, with £12m of reserves. In 2019, work will begin on a redevelopment scheme that will increase the Oval’s capacity from 25,000 to 40,000, making it the biggest cricket ground in England. (Lord’s, the Oval’s more illustrious rival, can seat 28,000 people.)

“We are in a good place,” said Richard Gould, the current chief executive, one recent afternoon in his grandstand office overlooking the pitch, where a big group of local schoolchildren ran around in the sun.

How did the Oval regain its shape? Gould, whose father Bobby played football for Arsenal and was manager of Wimbledon when the team won the FA Cup in 1988, lists several factors. The first is a greater focus on non-cricketing revenue, taking advantage of the club’s historic facilities. In 2011, when Gould joined Surrey after stints at Bristol City football and Somerset cricket clubs, revenue from corporate events and conferences was £1.3m. This year the projected income is £4.6m.

The second factor is the surge in popularity of the T20 competition played by the 18 first class counties in England and Wales. Unlike Tests, which last for five days, a T20 Blast match takes just three hours. The frenetic format has attracted many people to games who have never previously followed cricket. Surrey, which like Lord’s-based Middlesex have the advantage of being in London, have been especially successful in marketing its home games. Advance sell-outs are common. Surrey reckon they will account for one in six T20 tickets bought in the UK this season, with gate receipts of £4m, four times more than in 2010.

Whereas Test and even one-day international spectators tend to be regulars – and male – Gould estimates that up to 70 per cent of those who attend T20 games at the Oval are first-timers. Women, and children under 16, typically constitute a quarter of the crowd, a higher percentage than at football and rugby matches and a healthy trend for the game and the club.

The strong domestic T20 sales encouraged the Oval’s management to focus more on the county than on the national team. Until a few years ago, Surrey never seriously marketed its own merchandise, unlike professional football clubs, which have done so successfully for decades.

“When I came here, everything around the ground was focused on England,” Gould said. “We needed to put our team first. In the past, county cricket did not make you money. With T20, there’s a commercial business case.”

To raise its profile and pull in the crowds, Surrey have signed some of the biggest international stars in recent years, including Australia’s Ricky Ponting, South Africa’s Hashim Amla, Sri Lanka’s Kumar Sangakkara and Kevin Pietersen, who is now mainly a T20 franchise player. For the players, as with the counties, it’s where the money is.

The challenge for Surrey is to ensure that the new fans drawn to the Oval in recent years keep coming. In common with many businesses today, customer data is crucial. The club has 375,000 names on its marketing database, of which 160,000 are Surrey supporters. But since the average T20 purchaser buys six tickets, many people who attend games at the Oval remain unknown to the club. One way Surrey are trying to identify them is through a service that allows one person to book tickets for a group of friends, who then each pay the club directly. Another method is through offering free, fast Wi-Fi at the ground, which anyone can use as long as they register their email address.

For all the focus on T20, Gould is keen to stress that England internationals, especially Test matches, are a crucial part of the Oval’s future – even if the business model may have to be tweaked.

“We always want to be one of the main Test venues. The problem we have is: will countries still put aside enough time to come to play Tests here? In many countries domestic T20 now takes precedence over international cricket. It may be that we may have to start to pay countries to play at the Oval.” 

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue