Anyone who’s suffered through some tough luck in life – and, undoubtedly, most of us have had our share – knows that things tend to fall apart slowly and quietly. The consequences of bad breaks and bad decisions often take their time to sneak up and fully reveal themselves.
However, that’s often not the case in movies, in which the inherent economy of cinematic storytelling frequently necessitates that, for some hapless protagonist, all the proverbial shit will hit the fan in one fell swoop.
This might not be the most true-to-life dramatic device that a filmmaker can employ, but there’s something undeniably compelling about seeing a character’s entire world come crashing down in just a few short minutes of screen time. For the most part, all it takes for an audience to suspend its disbelief and accept this particular trope is that said character is well-drawn, the circumstances – exaggerated as they might be – are sufficiently relatable, and there exist some clear narrative and thematic justification for so aggressively kicking someone when they’re already down.
Unfortunately, it’s in precisely those three areas that What Was Lost, a short film directed and co-written by Don Swanson tends to stumble dramatically. In crushingly back-to-back fashion, protagonist Joel (John-Patrick Driscoll) suffers the indignities of losing his job as a college literature professor, having the rug pulled out from under his longtime passion project, and catching his emotionally estranged wife having an affair, but the filmmakers aren’t quite able to make this devastating confluence of events feel impactful. We never get to know or like Joel well enough to fully sympathize with him – or even to be sure that he doesn’t somehow deserve his misfortune – and the narrative that revolves around him feels tonally confused and unsure of what thread it ought to follow.
“…suffers the indignities of losing his job, having the rug pulled out from under his longtime passion project, and catching his emotionally estranged wife having an affair…”
What Was Lost does have one very interesting idea at its core: at the beginning of the film, Joel is closing in on uncovering the unpublished manuscript of a brilliant poet whose work had previously been thought lost, a discovery he feels will finally validate his life and career. Sadly, this intriguing literary mystery is shelved for far too much of the film’s running time, particularly during an inexplicable detour into borderline comedic crime-film territory (complete with some goofy, tone-deaf villain monologuing). Swanson and his co-writer/star Driscoll do eventually manage to deliver a payoff on that unique aspect of their story, but – much like the underdeveloped characterization of Joel – it feels like the audience is missing a lot of the detail and substance that would make its resolution hit home.
One element that What Was Lost continually falls back upon is Driscoll’s dynamic, well-wrought performance, which succeeds at holding the film together more successfully than its scattershot script or direction does. He brings a lot of sensitivity and passion to the lead role and, steering clear of the most common pitfall of low-budget short-film acting, he reins in the shouty melodramatics even in Joel’s fieriest moments. The remainder of the cast doesn’t fare quite as well; Elsa Carette and Allen Daniel, playing Joel’s wife and her lover, aren’t quite up to the task of making their underwritten characters feel cohesive or even adequately loathsome. The film’s so-so shot composition and staging don’t really add much, either, though they’re mostly serviceable – except for some silly fight choreography in a film that probably shouldn’t have any in the first place.
What Was Lost wasn’t the end of the road for Swanson and Driscoll, who recently re-teamed for a short film called Erson whose solid premise and the stylish-looking trailer suggests that the pair has been steadily honing their storytelling craft since their first collaboration. If the everything-falls-apart scenario of their earlier effort wasn’t quite within their grasp at the time, What Was Lost at least represents a significant and necessary early step in their creative evolution. That’s not quite enough to recommend the film, but where poor Joel’s life is a short, nasty plunge into ruin, it’s nice to see these filmmakers’ efforts following the exact opposite trajectory.
What Was Lost (2014) Directed by Don Swanson. Written by Swanson and John-Patrick Driscoll. Starring John-Patrick Driscoll, Elsa Carette, Allen Daniel, Kari Nicolle, Dustin Kyle, Emily Bennett.
4 out of 10