When the first clip from Ryan Gosling's directorial debut Lost River arrived online earlier this week - featuring a shaven-headed Matt Smith yelling "Look at my muscles!" over shots of various things on fire - we noted that the film seemed to be aiming for a certain kind of surrealist tone that can be very tricky to pull off. Also starring Christina Hendricks (Mad Men), Iain De Caestecker (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and Saoirse Ronan (The Host), Lost River is about a single mother who moves to a dilapidated town with her two sons and discovers that it has a dark underbelly.
It's possible that critics just didn't look closely enough at Smith's muscles to appreciate the true value of Gosling's film. Following its debut at Cannes 2014, Lost River has been met with a slew of negative reviews, and in the wake of this poor reception Warner Bros. has been trying to pass the film on to indie distributors.
Some of the reviewers were clearly trying to be kind to Gosling, excusing the film's flaws due to the fact that it was his first project as a screenwriter and director. Digital Spy said that Lost River "feels more like a practice run than a true first feature," while Film.com commented that, "when a Hollywood A-lister’s first film shoots for the stars but lands on the moon, it’s still worth being grateful." Most of the other reviews, however, were less generous.
Craig Skinner, Film Divider:
"For his debut feature as director, Ryan Gosling has created a mixtape from his favourite films, but he’s only dubbed the stylistic influences and transferred none of what made those films interesting. There are elements borrowed from David Lynch, particularly from Blue Velvet, and from Terence Malick, Dario Argento,Nicholas Winding Refn and Harmony Korine. What we have is tantamount to Gosling’s scrapbook, or an enthusiastic Instagramming session designed to show off his great taste."
Robbie Collin, The Telegraph:
"The problem is, it’s like everything Ryan Gosling’s seen: David Lynch, Mario Bava, Nicolas Winding Refn, Terence Malick, Gaspar Noé and a splash of David Cronenberg for good measure. But these filmmakers’ ideas and imagery aren’t developed, they’re simply reproduced: think Wikipedia essay rather than love letter. The result is cinema you don’t watch so much as absent-mindedly scroll through, wondering when an idea or an image worth clicking on will finally show up."
Keith Uhlich, Time Out:
"Hey, girl—go with what you know. Actor turned auteur Ryan Gosling’s nutty (and not in a good way) adult fairy tale is like some unholy amalgam of Nicolas Winding Refn’s black-light fantasias and Terrence Malick’s soul-searching allegories. It goes off the rails early and often. You almost have to give it props for how resolutely batshit it is. Almost."
Richard Corliss, TIME:
"Give some credit to Gosling... for his mad mashup of horror and social statement, crackpot fantasy and Sundance-style meandering. That means it wavers between the stupefying and the obscure, between LOL and WTF... It’s an oneiric hymn to destruction, an Armageddon anthem — a movie to see, if at all, under the influence."
Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian:
"It is colossally indulgent, shapeless, often fantastically and unthinkingly offensive and at all times insufferably conceited. Yet it is frustrating precisely because it sometimes isn't so bad. There is something in there somewhere - striking images and moments, and the crazy energy of a folie de grandeur...
"Its faults are huge: its virtues less so – but they are there. Gosling has energy and appetite. There is a delirious buzz to the drama. It is often ridiculous and fatuous but often ingenious. It could yet be that Gosling will mature as a director."
Lost River was brought to Cannes by Warner Bros. with the intention of also handling the US theatrical release, but in the wake of the film's critical reception it looks like the studio is trying to hand off Gosling's movie to someone else. According to Deadline, Warner Bros. is currently speaking with indie distributors about the possibility of one of them acquiring and releasing Lost River.
It's not altogether the first successful first outing as a filmmaker that anyone's ever had. We'll have to wait and see whether Gosling just needs some time to develop his own style, or whether he'll simply stick to acting in future.
Lost River does not yet have a US release date.