CANNES, FRANCE—I was shut out of Ryan Gosling's feature directorial debut, "Lost River," this afternoon, only to learn from reviews that I missed this year's designated "disasterpiece"—the Cannes premiere, à la "The Paperboy" and "Southland Tales," that everyone had collectively decided to gang up on for the remainder of the fest. "Had Terrence Malick and David Lynch somehow conceived an artistic love-child together, only to see it get kidnapped, strangled and repeatedly kicked in the face by Nicolas Winding Refn…the results might look and sound something like 'Lost River,'" began Justin Chang's review in Variety. I finally squeezed into a screening tonight, but as the movie played, I found myself wondering, "When does this get bad?" The least one can say for "Lost River" is that there's not a dull shot in it. Courtesy of cinematographer Benoit Debie, it's a vision of decay, neon, and hellfire that's like no other (well, except maybe Lynch's and Refn's). It's probably the most purely beautiful film I've seen at Cannes since "Drive" in 2011.
For his first outing, Gosling seems to have dug into the trash heap that Harmony Korine left behind for the West Coast of Florida. Set in the titular postapocalyptic town, "Lost River" revolves around one family, whose matriarch, Billy (Christina Hendricks), has fallen behind on her mortgage payments, though she argues that she never should have been issued the loan. As houses around them are demolished, there's the sense that toxic debt has corroded the landscape. (Gosling makes superb use of crumbling Detroit locations.) To make ends meet, Billy accepts work in a kind of fake-snuff burlesque show; in one of the most disturbing sequences, she appears to carve off her own face. At the same time, her son Bones (Iain De Caestecker) hangs out and dances through the town ruins with a girl named Rat (Saoirse Ronan), who keeps a pet rat called Nick. Ben Mendelsohn, as the club's owner (who's also the banker), has the Dean Stockwell–in–"Blue Velvet" role.
A ready-made midnight movie, "Lost River" is not an entirely coherent film—a mix of myth, political critique, and pure dada. Rooms are cluttered with fantastic bric-a-brac; characters watch old movies. The general theme seems to have to do with excavating a forgotten cultural past. Rat notes that Lost River is built on an area that was flooded to make way for the construction of a dam; she thinks the town has been under a curse ever since. (It's currently run by a vicious, "Mad Max"–like gang leader named Bully, played by Matt Smith, whose mantra—"look at my muscles!"—may be an homage to James Franco's favorite phrase in "Spring Breakers.") The violence in "Lost River" sometimes feels like shock-for-shock's-sake brutality, but the movie offers the kind of visual experience to which you surrender instinctively. Debie makes astonishing use of counter-intuitive light sources, rain on glass, pure red, and shocks of candlelight. I'll have more to say about this one as I process it, but the only thing close to a disaster is the critical pile-on that's greeted this ambitious (if clearly flawed) debut.