What's in a name? Put Jean-Luc Godard on a 3D art film and you have “Goodbye to Language,” one of the most overrated films I've ever seen come out of a festival (seriously, don't get me started on that one). Throw Ryan Gosling on “Lost River” and you have critics calling it a disaster before the first frame. What would have happened if the credits of these two 2014 Cannes Film Festival selections had been flipped? Or, what if each movie had been made by unknown filmmakers? Let's be frank, shall we? The reaction would have been much, much different.
As someone who was sitting in the theater for the first screening of “Lost River,” I can tell you the international critics on hand had their knives ready even before the lights went down. You can imagine the mentality, can't you? “Gosling? Ryan Gosling is debuting his first film at Cannes of all places?” No, unless it was an unequivocal masterpiece, “Lost River” had little chance with the hoard of global critics on hand. Sad, but, oh, so true.
Gosling collaborated with his actors and noted cinematographer Benoît Debie (“Enter the Void,” “Spring Breakers”) for what is, more than anything, clearly an experimental narrative. It's an art film first and an indie flick with a traditional storyline a distant second. The imagery and emotions it evokes are more important than the logic of the characters' actions or the plausibility of their predicaments. Inspired by the desolate, abandoned neighborhoods of Detroit, Gosling ended up painting a contemporary horror story (or ” dark fairy tale” as the official synopsis now reads) that is too strange to believe.
Granted, that's not to say the film doesn't have its faults. Matt Smith's performance as Bully, the neighborhood criminal with an on-the-nose name is just too over-the-top to believe even in this context (it doesn't help that Smith doesn't give him any real range either). On the other hand, Christina Hendricks and Iain De Caestecker (“Agents of SHIELD”) are impressive as a mother and son trying to save their home from foreclosure by any means necessary.
It's the imagery of “Lost River,” however, that still sticks with you, however. The horribly perverted clear mummy coffin Ben Mendleson's character gets off on, the shocking live show Eva Mendes is a part of every night, De Caestecker's dive into a whole neighborhood that is literally submerged under water and so much more. These are moments that if, the was directed by an unknown, would cause critics to praise him or her as an up and coming talent. That's not going happen at Cannes when the Goz is baring his creative soul for review. Maybe for his second film, but not his first. Mr. Gosling, no matter how amazing an actor you are, your celebrity just hurts your standing too much at a festival such as Cannes.
In hindsight, “Lost River” would have been better served premiering at Sundance, the New York Film Festival or, no joke, even Toronto. It's not that it wouldn't face criticism there as well, but the film would have found many more champions, or at least critics who appreciated what Gosling was attempting to pull off. In fact, look for more positive word of mouth to come from the film's North American premiere at SXSW next month.
The good news is you'll soon be able to weigh in on “Lost River” yourself. It will be released in a small number of theaters and digitally on April 10. In the meantime, you can check out the new official trailer embedded at the bottom of this post.
Just do Gosling and this pundit a favor, won't you? Don't judge it based on a throng of international journos wailing on Twitter. See it for yourself. It might just surprise you.