My favorite new commercial release out now, the dialogue-free claymation Shaun the Sheep Movie, is a loving tribute to the work of Buster Keaton, trading in meticulously staged sight gags and deadpan reaction shots. The soundtrack is largely subservient to the images—writer-directors Mark Burton and Richard Starzak use noises merely to punctuate the visual humor. This strategy makes for a nice change of pace from all the dumb one-liners that routinely clog up children’s animations; more importantly, it provides a welcome reminder that movies don’t need words. The cinema, of course, was silent for more than three decades before sound was introduced to the medium. By the end of the 1920s, the movies had developed a visual sophistication comparable to what exists today, as such classics as Sunrise or The Crowd demonstrate. Shaun the Sheep Movie might not be on the level of those films, but it invokes their majesty all the same.
Oddly enough, watching Shaun made me want to revisit the dark fairy tale Lost River, which has been available for rent at Redbox kiosks for a couple months now. Ryan Gosling’s much-maligned debut as a writer-director is, in the words of Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw, a “fantastically annoying” film, a big old mess of undigested creative influences, aestheticized ugliness, and look-at-me directorial flourishes. Yet I’ve found myself unable to shake many of River’s images since I saw it in the spring. Working with Gaspar Noe’s regular cinematographer Benoit Debie, Gosling creates some arresting sights in and around Detroit, and he elicits some fine, highly physical work from a cast that includes Christina Hendricks and Ben Mendelsohn. I suspected that River would be a better film with the sound off, and I was right. Without the interference of Gosling’s god-awful dialogue and Johnny Jewel’s pretentious, droning score, I could better appreciate the movie’s virtues and connect with its dreamlike flow.
The film takes place in a fictionalized Detroit called Lost River, a largely abandoned city whose last citizens spend their time talking about how they’re going to leave. The hero, Bones, is an 18-year-old who makes money by stripping copper from abandoned buildings and selling it to a junkyard. His unemployed single mother, Billy (Hendricks), wants desperately to keep her family home from getting taken by the bank. Both characters come to be terrorized by a couple of outsize villains who suggest characters out of a nightmare. Bones rouses the ire of a local thug who wants all the town’s copper for himself and who cuts off the lips of his enemies with a pair of rusty scissors. Billy makes a deal with the town’s new bank manager (Mendelsohn), who moonlights as the manager of a strange cabaret where beautiful women pretend to get mutilated onstage. She becomes a performer in his show, and he exploits their intimacy to make unwelcome sexual advances.
Mendelsohn’s character suggests a mashup of Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell’s characters from Blue Velvet, and the slow, uninflected line readings that Gosling insists most of his actors deliver further suggest the influence of David Lynch. (The very set-up of Lost River—which locates inexplicable menace behind all-American environments—is rather Lynchian too.) The influence of Terrence Malick hangs heavily over the film’s editing and sound design, as Gosling often creates montages of what look like outtakes set to dreamy-sounding dialogue. These passages are perhaps the film’s most irritating—Gosling’s tone-deaf prose would severely limit his ability to achieve a sense of wonder even if the style didn’t feel so nakedly derivative. Almost as bad are Mendelsohn’s monologues, which aspire to menace but come out sounding like parodies of Hopper’s dialogue in Velvet.
And yet the Australian actor remains an imposing screen presence here—he employs impressively controlled body language and a steely stare to suggest a psychopathic determination. The skeletal-looking Matt Smith (given a buzz cut and a gold-sequined jacket) is no less imposing as Bully, the thug who has it in for Bones. Both actors are more commanding in River when you don’t have to hear them swear and yell, which occurs far too often for my taste. Gosling achieves some striking effects when he cuts between these two performers, as in the movie’s centerpiece, which finds Mendelsohn performing a song at his club at the same time as Smith intimidates Bones’s friend Rat (Saoirse Ronan) in a gas station parking lot. Lit by a few neon lights in darkness, both characters seem practically regal amid the atmosphere of industrial decay. Their ghoulish appearances inspire the same sort of fascination as monsters in fairy tales—in these moments Gosling’s vision attains the primal urgency one associates with silent-expressionist cinema.