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Ben Szymanski

Software Developer. Amateur Pianist. Sizable Weightlifter.

Lost River

Where television is mostly just a time suck, movies promise to be over in 1.5, 2 or 2.5 hours. Even so, I don’t watch a lot of either. After wasting too much time watching televisions and movies growing up, I now have the harsh opinion that both are low-effort activities that can only bring about the most boring and docile people possible.

It’s not that watching television or movies is entirely pointless though. There are some good stories, even if sparse. So I’ve been trying to find a movie to watch every few weekends or so.

This past weekend, I watched the movie Lost River. Released in 2015, it stars Christina Hendricks and Eva Mendes (which you likely know), and was directed by Ryan Gosling (who you also likely know). The critics seemed to hate the movie, however I’ll cut to the chase right now and give it my full approval and recommendation.

It’s a fictional noir-style story set in present day Detroit. The cinematography is excellent and a great snapshot of what some of these buildings in Detroit look like today. At times, it felt a little like trite "ruin porn," but maybe that’s just because I already recognize many of those buildings and streets from IRL. I’d imagine the broader audience who has never set foot inside of Detroit would find these scenes more haunting, captivating and heartbreaking.

I suppose one of the reasons this movie struck such a note with me is that it’s set in Detroit and I grew up in Toledo (which is about 50 minutes south via I-75). Toledo has a very similar story to Detroit, even if less dramatic. It used to be a prosperous, powerhouse an American city and eventually fell off the cliff somewhere during the middle 70’s.

While Toledo isn’t in nearly as dire of straits as Detroit is, we’re often referred to as “Mini Detroit.” And indeed the hooligans from Detroit will sometimes make that quick trip down the highway and into Toledo to collect scrap or peddle drugs.

Detropia

If Lost River didn’t take inspiration from Detropia, I would be very surprised.

Many of the scenes in Lost River are beautifully shot. Very ruinous porn-like in the same way that Detropia is. Even some of the characters in this story seem to have counterparts from Detropia.

Emptiness

A recurring theme of Lost River is the emptiness that plagues everyone.

For some, like Bully, it means power and control. (Though the irony - a king of nothing?)

For others, like Bones and Rat, it’s solitude, reflection and is the fuel firing their desire to leave.

Despite being fictional, its pretty well representative of what life really is like in that region today. When I left Ohio for Connecticut last year, I was one of just a small handful of friends left in the city (and state). People first dispersed after high school. Many of them chose other colleges around the state. Then there was a second dispersing after college. By now, most in my peer group who could leave, have. Those left behind were now likely married with kids on the way, or burnt out from smoking too much weed, or hooked on H.

A lot of people left to Texas and Colorado. A handful went to the megalopolises of California. Others, to Chicago, NYC and Florida.

The emptiness of a city like Toledo doesn’t manifest itself physically. There are plenty of people around. The highways are heavily trafficked. The only thing you notice is that your social circles dwindle, the dating pool of people in your age group dwindles. It’s not any one thing that’s making you miserable because you’re not miserable. It’s more of a wondering where the void begins and ends, and what you’re missing out on by being here and not there.

Illusion of Progress

I really liked the “educational” propaganda video that Bones and Rat watch together about the flooding of an area of the town. IMO, the optimistic, retro-futurist narrator voiceover is a strong link to the often cited Detroit: City on the Move video.

The flooding of the neighborhood and the results (resulting in the depopulation/abandonment of the surrounding neighborhood) seem to reference the public works projects of mid-century Detroit that many now label as racist. For example, interstate highway projects like I-75 were built over traditionally black neighborhoods like Black Bottom. Highways, it is alleged, were specifically laid out in a way to shatter the black community and segregate white neighborhoods from black neighborhoods.

The Spell

We’re introduced to the “spell” of Lost River, but the story doesn’t develop it enough to make it more meaningful, mystical and suspenseful. A missed opportunity.

Supposedly a section of Detroit was flooded to make a bougie lake area for power boating. However removing people from their homes resulted in a curse on the area as a whole and is the major reason that the neighborhood Bones and Rat live in is now dilapidated.

The underdevelopment of this literary device makes it appear like the spell is just more of a superstition (or guilty conscious) than an actually supernatural occurrence. I’d prefer the latter.

Conclusion

Overall, I’d recommend this movie - damn the critics. I’m sure a more thoughtful and insightful watcher can offer up better analysis of the themes than I can, but hopefully this was a fun look into the ruins of the Great Lakes region.