Directed by: Ryan Gosling.
Written by: Ryan Gosling.
Starring: Christina Hendricks (Billy), Iain De Caestecker (Bones), Saoirse Ronan (Rat), Matt Smith (Bully), Ben Mendelsohn (Dave), Eva Mendes (Cat), Reda Kateb (Cab Driver), Barbara Steele (Grandma), Landyn Stewart (Franky), Rob Zabrecky (MC).
In his directorial debut, Ryan Gosling wears his influences on his sleeve. A little bit of Nicolas Winding Refn, who directed one of Gosling’s best performances (Drive) and one of his worst (Only God Forgives) a lot of David Lynch, perhaps a little David Gordon Green and a host of others (including The Tree of Life, Eyes Without a Face, the output of Gaspar Noe) that Gosling takes a little impersonation from. To give Gosling credit, he shows some real talent behind the camera – he gets the mood of the film right, and he has some very striking visuals throughout. But what Gosling doesn’t really have here is a story – or something meaningful to say. The film is basically just a sum of his impersonations, which Gosling has yet to refine and find his own voice. This makes Gosling like a lot of first time filmmakers – in that he tries to accomplish a lot, and ends up accomplishing nothing. He may well get there one day – but it’s not with Lost River.
The film takes place in a desolate, American wasteland – a town that has been killed by unemployment, where most of the people have been given little choice but to pack up and move away. Billy (Christina Hendricks), is a single mother – and she doesn’t want to do that. But she has a bank loan – one she feels she should not have qualified for, but the new guy at the bank, Dave (Ben Mendelsohn), doesn’t really care. He’s the bank’s “fixer” – they move him from branch to branch, firing employees, and trying to get as much money out of the toxic loans as he can, before moving on. He doesn’t offer Billy any breaks on her loan – but he does offer her a job. Not at the bank – but at the makeshift “club” he has founded. He says he opens one like it in every city he goes to. Billy walks into the club the first time – through a door shaped like a demonic mouth – and doesn’t know what to expect, and neither does the audience. The club isn’t really a strip club, or a sex club, but something far more perverse than that – and represents another way the rich exploit the poor. The star is Cat (Eva Mendes) – who runs a surprisingly bloody show onstage, and is rather sweet off of it. It is overseen by a man (Rob Zabrecky) who has seen Joel Grey is Cabaret a few too many times.
The other thread of the story involves Billy’s teenage son Bones (Iain De Caestecker), who tries to make a little extra money stripping the abandoned houses of their copper wire, and selling it. This puts him on the wrong side of Bully (Matt Smith), who rides around in his convertible, driven by his henchmen Face, and speaking into a loudspeaker announcing to everyone that the copper wire is his – and since seemingly no one is around except for Bones and his family, he’s speaking directly to him. There is one other family actually – as Bones makes moves towards a tentative romance with Rat (Saoirse Ronan), who lives with her grandmother (Barbara Steele). Rat, of course, owns a rat – but don’t get too attached.
Lost River is a strange film from beginning to end. Gosling seems to want to make a demented, surreal fairy tale here – which is something I’ve always argued Drive was, and what Lynch’s wonderful Wild at Heart (1990) certainly was. He gets the mood and tone mostly right – the world certainly feels just apart from our world, and both Billy and Bones have to enter even more fantastical places – for Billy, the club, for Bones, a city that was flooded when they built a dam a few years prior. The performances help to establish the mood –even if most of them are fairly one note. Best of the lot is the always reliable Mendelsohn, who becomes increasingly demented as the movie goes along, and has a memorable dance sequence near the end of the film.
What Gosling doesn’t give us though is a reason to care about any of this. His characters are flat and one note – mostly either morose or insane, and although the actors do what they can, they cannot breathe life into them. The storytelling is confused – particularly near the end, as the various storylines come to a head simultaneously, but in a confusing fashion that left me confounded more than moved. For much of the movie, I was left with the feeling that Gosling was just piling one damn thing on top of each other.
There are isolated moments in Lost River that work – that Mendelsohn dance sequence, the first time Billy enters the surreal nightmare of the club, the haunting image of streetlights that barely stick above the water in the drowned town, etc. But the film is just a collection of these moments in search of a story – in search of a reason for us to care about any of it. I didn’t – and so for me, Lost River failed. Gosling may well make a great film as a director someday – he just needs to figure out what he wants to say first.