Cast: Ian De Caestecker, Christina Hendricks, Ben Mendelsohn, Saoirse Ronan, Matt Smith, Eva Mendes
Director: Ryan Gosling
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
There are a few discernible roadblocks facing Lost River, the directorial debut of actor Ryan Gosling. For starters, the most obvious criticism, beyond the fact that the film makes very little narrative sense, is that Gosling is essentially making a collage-style tribute to his favorite filmmakers. There's David Lynch's surrealism, a bit of Terrance Malick's poeticism, a dose of Harmony Korine's skewered naturalism, some Dario Argento-influenced erotic horror, etc. In fact, one could probably play a Lost River drinking game of "spot the influence" and be shit-faced 20-minutes in, but beyond the pastiche framework, there's another more glaring problem at play here; namely, the Gosling cool factor. Being a successful, talented, good-looking Hollywood actor has its obvious perks, but also its inevitable drawbacks. Taking Gosling seriously as a filmmaker shouldn't be that much of a stretch, considering he's done interesting work in the past few years (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines, Drive), but there is still a stigma around someone who seems effortlessly good at everything he does. Perhaps the most important influence that wasn't mentioned earlier is director Nicholas Winding Refn, who worked with Gosling on Drive and Only God Forgives, and whose imprint is all over Lost River.
Whether or not Gosling has spent too much time drinking the neon Kool-Aid with Refn is debatable, but what cannot be denied is that Lost River is a determined move to further distance himself from a demo that mostly includes young women and pop-culture fanboys. The film is a fascinating mishmash of styles and tones that somehow works in the way Gosling seems to want it work; namely, as a modern dark Grimm-style fairytale. Set in a fictional ghost town that looks a lot like decrepit areas of Detroit (which, incidentally, is where the film was shot), Lost River contains a rather muddled mythology, especially in regards to how characters are named; Rat, Face, Bully, etc, which lands things squarely in allegorical territory. There's apocalyptic imagery too-- a discarded zoo, overgrown lawns, light poles submerged under water, houses on fire--all of which allow Gosling to track, sometimes strikingly, while at other times clunkily, the fairytale aesthetic for the entirety of the picture.
The film stars Ian De Caestecker as Bones, an aimless young man who spends his time stripping copper from abandoned homes, while his single mother Billy (Christina Hendricks) is struggling to pay off her home loan and is forced to do some questionable things to keep her family together. The cast also includes the ever reliable character actor Ben Mendelsohn as a slimy bank manager who runs an after hours burlesque club, Saoirse Ronan as a moody teenager living next store, and Matt Smith as a loopy kingpin named Bully, who rules over the dystopian wasteland by riding around in a convertible clutching a microphone and shouting lines like "look at my muscles, look at my muscles!" at top volume. There really isn't much here in terms of plot; Gosling is going more for mood and atmosphere than narrative coherency, and yet there is some social commentary jutting out from the edges of all the lyrical weirdness. In a way, the film is about how banks have profited from desperate homeowners and how once thriving neighborhoods have been systematically uprooted and entire families destroyed. At its heart, Lost River is a social parable about love, family, and capitalism wrapped in a stream of consciousness nightmare.
Truthfully, pointing out such themes is probably being a bit generous, as Gosling seems interested in social commentary mostly as a means to engage in midnight movie pretensions, but there is genuine sincerity to his vision that cannot be easily dismissed as mere ego. Interestingly, Gosling intercuts scenes of full-on surrealism with moments where his actors (mostly De Caestecker) interacts with non-actors caught in the undertow of their homes collapsing. These scenes, which feel very similar to Korine's work (aka Gummo), shouldn't really fit tonally, but somehow get at the heart of what Gosling is going for thematically. Mostly, though, Lost River is an experience film; full of sounds and images that may not connect as a cohesive whole, but which nonetheless play to the strengths of Gosling as a visual stylist. Sure, he wears his influences unabashedly, but hiring Benoit Debie (Enter the Void, Spring Breakers) as your cinematographer is a stroke of genius, and his work behind the camera is unsurprisingly stunning. Neon-lit corridors, streams of red fog, Mendelsohn performing a warped song at the burlesque club, Johnny Jewels' atmospheric synth-laden score, buildings on fire, a mute grandmother stoically watching wedding footage on an old projector; these are all things that linger.
Lost River might not add up to much, and its clear that Gosling's gifts as a writer are severely lacking, but its still an ambitious piece of work that further cements him as someone with more on his mind than Hollywood stardom. If Drive and Only God Forgives didn't already make it clear, Gosling is drawn much more to the eccentric fringes than many of his diehard fans are probably comfortable with, and if anything, Lost River proves that he doesn't care about courting mass audience appeal. Some may label him a phony, a hack, or someone trying too hard to make something weird by pillaging through his obvious influences, but those accusations seem a tad reactionary. Lost River isn't the dreadful fiasco we all heard about coming out of the Cannes Film Festival last year, nor is it some underground cult masterpiece, either. Instead, it highlights Gosling's strengths and underlines some of his weaknesses, and it will be interesting to see what he does next. In other words, its time to drink that neon Kool-Aid.