Film Review: Lost River

Risk-taking and stylistically promising debut from actor-turned director Ryan Gosling can’t quite find its original voice amid his numerous artistic influences.
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You have to hand it to Ryan Gosling, the latest name in the ever-growing list of prominent actor-turned-directors, for playing it courageously unsafe with his high-concept feature debut behind the camera. With the stylistically competent, despair-ridden fairytale Lost River, Gosling proves to have a lot of thematic ideas and cinematic references he is eager to pull from. Not all of them mesh well, truth be told, and the resulting film is a wildly mixed bag (that includes some nightmarish atmospheric sensibilities borrowed from David Lynch), but one that fortunately plays more like a curious, sincere experiment of a promising new storyteller rather than the egotistical self-indulgence of an A-List actor.

Set in the mythical, largely abandoned titular city of Lost River, the story takes us through some desperate, unidentified times that call for desperate measures for Billy (Christina Hendricks), a single mother of two boys, standing tall on the verge of a suggested apocalypse amid urban decay and economic hardship. Severely behind on her mortgage payments but refusing to give up on her long-time family home while routinely watching her neighbors’ properties get abruptly destroyed on short notice, Billy decides to accept a mysterious job offer from twisted, opportunist bank manager Dave (Ben Mendelsohn).

In his nightclub that entertains wealthy customers through a grotesque display of (fake) violence mostly towards women (which makes one want to yell out, “Silencio!”), Dave employs a group of show-women (including Eva Mendes) who—with fake blood and prosthetics—pierce, cut and slice themselves for money and go even further for those paying the big bucks. Meanwhile Billy’s older son Bones (Iain De Caestecker) fights his own battle by gleaning scraps of metal from derelict buildings in order to contribute to his family’s finances, but agitates the hood’s dangerous thug Bully (Matt Smith) who claims the demolished area to be his own territory and intimidates Billy’s crush Rat (Saoirse Ronan) in return.

Lost River is actually a lot more abstract and intangible than the above might suggest, and plays with an array of sound-bite-sized ideas around social realism and the financial burdens worsening economic conditions have placed on the shoulders of small-town America. Gosling chooses Detroit (the city that apparently served as an inspiration for the film) to tell his survival story where the strong smash the weak and (as we later discover) towns must devour other towns in order to exist. As in David Robert Mitchell’s current horror hit It Follows (also shot in Detroit), this location choice proves to be a smart decision, with the sense of realness of the decay (also a major asset of It Follows) effortlessly dialing up the atmospheric creepiness of the film. Gosling also decisively plays it feminist by placing a woman at the center of his story (Hey, girl, are you surprised?), allowing her both physical strength and emotional vulnerability in navigating a man’s world and potential predators she dares to prevail against.

There is a lot of talk (mostly criticism) of Lost River’s similarities to the cinema of Nicolas Winding Refn (who directed Gosling twice before, in Drive and Only God Forgives,) and one can halfway understand the raising of eyebrows when it comes to the visual parallels between Lost River and Refn’s films, especially around the display of violence. But the feminist sensibilities of Lost River couldn’t be further from either film, considering who has the power and calls the shots here.

The film’s real strength, in addition to the marvelous Christina Hendricks, is admittedly the eye-popping craftsmanship that helps place the dark, in-limbo world of Lost River somewhere between the horrors of Blue Velvet and emotional gloom of Blue Valentine. Benoît Debie’s gorgeous, fever-dream cinematography recalls his work in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, heightening the psychological terror onscreen. There is also a brief glimpse of Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life, namely) somewhere in there, with a crisp, out-of-place shot of “happy times” appearing early in the film, never to be seen again. If you think, “This is one too many references,” you are correct. And that is the unfortunate problem with Lost River: It gives you a lot to admire but makes you crave for a more original, coherent artistic stamp. But for all its sins, Lost River also gives you enough reasons to look forward to Gosling’s next with curiosity. And that is no small feat.

 

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