finding lost river
It took me one minute to fall in love with Lost River. Since its release, Ryan Gosling's directorial debut has been compared (favorably as well as unfavorably) to the work of directors such as David Lynch and Nicolas Winding Refn. The description that struck me the most, however, was “adult fairytale.” Like Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are, Lost River is a fairytale of domestic tensions expressed through fantasy rather than anything more overt, including the clues dropped here and there throughout the movie such as Rat’s (Saoirse Ronan) remark that a “spell” was cast over the town or the cab driver’s (Reda Kateb) musings on the American Dream. But what makes Lost River unique is that, as striking as the visuals are, it's a story told primarily through music and sound.
Diegetic noise introduces the film, and when it breaks, it's to the swell of the jazz standard "Deep Purple." It's a dream of a song laid over the starker world that Bones and his mother Billy (Iain De Caestecker and Christina Hendricks) inhabit, backing scenes of simple domestic bliss and idyllic suburbia, and it fades away into silence as soon as Bones leaves home and gets to work. When it returns a couple of times later on in the film, it's in the same sort of context: during characters' flights of fancy, and during fantasies woven by the story's resident big bad wolf, Dave (Ben Mendelsohn), at the faux-snuff club that he runs.
Two styles of music dominate the feature: jazz standards, and electronic music by Johnny Jewel and his collaborators Glass Candy and Chromatics. Johnny Jewel's score takes over as characters struggle with the reality of their fading hometown, kicking in first when Bones goes out to collect scrap metal in order to help pay his family's rent. It also features prominently behind the scourge of Bones’ existence and the secondary villain of the story, Bully (Matt Smith), who is introduced yelling through a bullhorn and spends stretches of the movie later on simply screaming into thin air. It's a harsh, atonal noise that stands in sharp contrast to the song that Dave sings in his club, clearly separating the two antagonists into their respective realms.
Dave's crooning is enticing rather than intimidating, but it's not the real thing — it's not the real "Deep Purple." Still, Dave offers Billy the promise of financial freedom, luring her in with covers of "Blue Moon" and performances to "Moliendo Cafe," but when things finally come to a head at the end of the movie, there’s no more jazz or bolero to be found. The music breaks into the best and most anxiety inducing of Johnny Jewel’s tracks: a pounding, insistent number entitled “Shell Game.” The wolf has shed the sheep’s clothing. It’s the only number that’s set to intercutting footage of Bones and Billy as opposed to focusing on one character or the other, as both struggle to escape the clutches of their respective demons.
Rat (Saoirse Ronan) is the only other character in the movie besides Dave who is given a song, and the music she makes serves as a medium between the electro-pop of reality and the jazz of dreams. Her song, “Tell Me,” is first introduced as she sings it to herself, with Bones watching and listening just outside her window, and returns in full force over the end credits as Billy, Bones, and company make their escape from Lost River to start a new life somewhere else. It’s got some of the grit of the former and some of the hopefulness of the latter, with Rat accompanying herself onto a small electric keyboard; it’s a compromise rather than an ultimatum, an acceptance of the ugly parts of life as well as the beautiful. “Tell Me” is the happily ever after where “Shell Game” is the dragon, and “Deep Purple,” the fairy godmother.
Over the course of its 90-minute running time, Lost River tells its story by using two seemingly opposite styles of music as proxies for its driving forces, and ultimately blending them together. Deceptively sweet jazz takes the part of fantasy while sometimes near-ambient electronica stands in for the harsher realities of life, and there’s comfort in the fact that they find a middle ground as opposed to wiping each other out. Billy and Bones grow instead of becoming facsimiles of Bully or Dave, and find hope in each other and in Rat, instead. While it may not be a perfect movie, Lost River is singular for its use of music, and though I suspect that critics meant the phrase “adult fairytale” as mockery on more than one occasion, there’s something special about a movie that can bring a sense of the fantastic to the anxieties of adult life through that lens alone.