Tag Archives: neo-noir

Lost River

Lost River
Lost River

Format: Cinema

Release date: 10 April 2015

Distributor: Entertainment One

Director: Ryan Gosling

Writer: Ryan Gosling

Cast: Iain De Caestecker, Christina Hendricks, Saoirse Ronan, Matt Smith, Eva Mendes, Ben Mendelsohn

USA 2014

95 mins

In the largely deserted, rotting metropolis of Lost River, single mother of two Billy (Christina Hendricks) is two months behind on the payments that will stop the house she loves from being destroyed. Desperate, she confronts the new bank manager Dave (Ben Mendelsohn) about her situation, only for him to offer her employment at his nightclub, a strange burlesque/grand guignol establishment. She becomes a performer, but the increasingly forceful Dave keeps pressing for her to work downstairs, where the real money is to be made. Meanwhile her eldest son, Bones (Iain de Caestecker), is also deep in trouble, as his ‘work’ stripping copper from abandoned buildings brings him into conflict with local psycho Bully (Matt Smith*). He is torn between fleeing the city and staying for the sake of his mother, and for his burgeoning romance with neighbour Rat (Saiorse Ronan), who tells him that Lost River has been cursed, and that there is a way to break that curse.

Part modern American austerity drama, part neo-noir crime flick, part ‘hero’s journey’quest, Ryan Gosling’s first effort as writer/director is very likely going to split audiences between those who find it bewitching and those who find it unbearable. It’s going to get a proper kicking in some quarters, but I feel charitable towards it, mainly because the odd grab-bag of the cast (Joan from Mad Men! A Doctor Who! The creepy uncle out of Animal Kingdom! Eva Mendes!) seem to be having a whale of a time. Gosling, like many actor-turned-directors, indulges his cast their whims and fancies, always a risky strategy. But in this case it pays off in a number of odd little moments: Eva Mendes playing with Billy’s younger kid, plastered in fake blood; Matt Smith’s interaction with a baffled (non-pro) old lady on a gas station forecourt; Ben Mendelsohn’s freaky dancing, his OTT karaoke turn on ‘Cool Water’, all feel loose, semi-improvised and playful, in a style that fits with the film’s other ace card: its thrift shop explosion/Detroit ruin porn aesthetic. The buildings are crumbling, and in the process have become theatres. There’s a post–apocalyptic carnival float feel to the visual design, where everything seems to be repurposed and recycled, all shot in Benoit Debi‘s fluid, richly coloured William Egglestone-a-like photography.

It’s certainly beautiful, it just doesn’t feel all that purposeful. This is partly down to a bit of a charisma vacuum at its core: for whatever reason, the lead character Bones just feels a lot less interesting or likeable than everyone around him. He has a function in the story but doesn’t really have much to do but brood, glower and run away for most of the film. There’s also a problem in that Billy’s travails at the saturnine night club don’t really integrate with the Bones fairy tale business. It feels like one of David Lynch’s noir nightmares has gotten entangled somehow with a Beasts of the Southern Wild bit of mythical indie heart-on-sleevery, the two parts dancing, lava lamp style, but never quite mixing. The urgency of the last twenty minutes or so, as both tales darken and climax (and Jimmy Jewel’s score really kicks in**), largely override these quibbles, but for long stretches Lost River feels a bit shapeless and diffuse, a messy patchwork of pretty things, most of them second hand, some of them cherishable. It’s as if first-time screenwriter Ryan Gosling has, against his better instincts, corralled his loose and multifarious ideas into a Robert McKee approved three-act plot-point hitting screenplay, and first-time director Ryan Gosling has taken that screenplay and done spontaneous and interesting things with it.

Worth a gamble. Hell, you might love it.

Mark Stafford

*Smith and Mendelsohn, though never meeting on screen, effectively do battle here as two different flavours of menacing sociopath. Mendelsohn, a previous Gold winner in this field, is ahead on points, but Smith’s sexually threatening moment (‘can I stroke it?’) with Saoirse Ronan’s rat, deserves special mention.

**Seriously though, what is it with brooding, John Carpenter-esque synth scores these days? It’s like the composers for this, Drive, It Follows and a fair few others all had a meeting, or started a Carpenter fan club or something. I am most definitely not complaining, mind. Try playing the soundtrack to It Follows on your headphones after stepping off the nightbus of an evening. That’ll put a spring in your step.

Watch the trailer:



Format: DVD

Release date: 20 February 2012

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Javor Gardev

Writer: Vladislav Todorov (based on his novel)

Cast: Zahary Baharov, Tanya Ilieva, Vladimir Penev

Bulgaria 2008

92 mins

Moth (Zahary Baharov), a would-be boxer and full-time loser, emerges from prison in the 60s, having missed out on most of his youth and a communist coup in 1944, serving time for a murder he didn’t commit, having taken the fall to protect his lover Ada (Tanya Ilieva) and their unborn child. He is barely out of the prison doors when he is abducted by army thugs and taken to be tortured by Slug (Vladimir Penev), once a small-time con man, now a commissar in the new hierarchy, hell-bent on finding a diamond that went missing after that murder decades ago…

Bulgarian neo-noir, anybody? Javor Gardev’s Zift makes no bones about the fact that it’s running on familiar rails. Ada’s femme fatale status is flagged up immediately when she is given the teenage nickname Mantis, and reinforced for those who haven’t got it yet when she reappears under the stage name Gilda in a slinky black number singing a tune that Rita Hayworth would find familiar. Moth is, of course, fatally drawn to his old flame. He seems to be smart enough to deliver the dry, world-weary voice-over, but not smart enough to avoid trouble, getting into the wrong car, falling into Slug’s traps. He spends the second half of the film as a dead man walking (with obvious nods to 1950’s D.O.A.) and the rain-sodden graveyard finale seems so inevitable that it feels oddly flat when it actually happens.

So Gardev, heavily assisted by screenwriter Vladislav Todorov and D.P. Emil Hristov, is serving us a very familiar brew, plot-wise, but, as if to compensate, goes mad on the decoration and delivery. Zift is full of inventive camera work and artful monochrome compositions. Moth staggers around in a sharp leather jacket and white shirt combo when he’s not naked and tattooed, his shaven scalp looking decidedly anachronistic for the 1960s (though various flashbacks tell us this is saving us from a coiffure that looks like a cheap carpet). His story is continually interrupted with grainy cutaways that illustrate other tales and ideas. What would be tense sequences in other films are undercut here by deliberately OTT touches, so an escape from Slug’s torturers results in Moth sliding on his arse through a Turkish bath full of screaming naked women chasing a glass eyeball. Elsewhere, it’s self-consciously cool in a way that reminded me of Europa-era von Trier and other art-house darlings of 20 years back, seeming to take place in its own hermetically sealed nightmare world. Well, either that or Bulgaria is a lot freakier than I think we all imagined. The clock is striking 17, 18, 19, and there are dwarf women selling insects in jars at flea markets in the woods, fart-lighting grave-diggers and creepy grinning nurses; everybody at a hospital seems compelled to tell stories of horror or embarrassment, and most of the cast seem prone to the kind of gutter philosophising that comes naturally to drunks or men serving hard time.

Zift comes to life in prison flashbacks and fever dream hallucinations, in its grotesques and non-sequiturs, and disappoints when it clambers back to its story. It’s hard to know how seriously we’re supposed to take all this: the off-the-peg plot and go-for-broke stylisation work against any kind of emotional tug. Are we meant to feel anything for these hard-boiled archetypes? Does it matter, when there’s all this neat stuff to look at? Ilieva is pretty damn sexy as Mantis. In a role that’s written as pure male fantasy, she manages to suggest that there’s more going on behind those eyes than Moth will ever comprehend. Baharov gives good lug as Moth, whose hangdog fatalism means that he never seems all that concerned by his own damnation. The whole thing is engaging and off-kilter and a little unsatisfying. It’s worth watching for those odd moments of Bulgarian business, but you can’t help wishing that all this invention and craft had been festooned around a story that needed telling.

Mark Stafford