Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut Lost River was conceived while the actor was visiting abandoned and derelict areas of Detroit, the story built around his burgeoning desire to express the tumbledown romance of those abandoned neighbourhoods. As such there’s a shabby-chic post-apocalyptic twang to the movie, albeit the same kind felt in Beasts Of The Southern Wild; a sense not so much of cataclysm but rather of perpetual neglect. Houses that catch fire are left to burn. The emergency services aren’t coming. These people have to fend for themselves.
The film constructs a woozy dual narrative around one family. Billy (Christina Hendricks) is a struggling but spirited single mother of two, on the brink of losing her home (planted in an increasingly barren wasteland) as she falls behind on her mortgage repayments. Enter Ben Mendelsohn as Dave, possibly cinema’s least convincing bank manager; a man who runs a Grand Guignol-styled nightclub where shady customers are amused by horrific stage performances that fixate on violent acts performed on and by women. Dave offers Billy the opportunity to catch up on her arrears by moonlighting at his club, an offer she gamely accepts before fully realising the depth of the waters she’s wading into.
Running in tandem to this are the exploits of her oldest son Bones (Iain De Caestecker), himself running into trouble with a local hood named Bully (a transformed Matt Smith) after being caught pilfering scrap copper from Bully’s turf. Bones makes friends with his neighbour Rat (Saoirse Ronan) who has a theory that the neighbourhood’s woes are directly linked to the sinking of a nearby town beneath a reservoir. Bones discovers remnants of a street leading down into the murky waters. If Rat is right, then all their problems might be reversed if a piece of that old world could be brought to the surface.
Thus Gosling sculpts his decidedly wonky film as a sort of dark fairy tale, one in which it’s characters try to make sense of a cruel world by having faith in the flimsiest of hopes. It works and it doesn’t. On the one hand Gosling successfully conjures a tone of romantic desperation, on the other his admirable tendency to allow his narrative to wander frequently threatens to leave it adrift altogether. Come the end, Lost River feels a little incoherent, yet along the way Gosling grab-bags some memorable imagery and startling performances. It may not transpire to be one of the best films of the year, but at the very least it’s constantly interesting to watch.
The film’s end credits give thanks to a number of filmmakers, including two with whom Gosling has collaborated on more than one occasion; Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives) and Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond The Pines). The influence of both directors is keenly felt. Refn and Only God Forgives are recalled strongly in Billy’s storyline, particularly when we are invited into Dave’s incongruous nighttime arena where pastel colours blaze brightly against the dark. Cianfrance’s rustic sense of locale comes to the fore whenever we are following Bones, whose arc feels more mythic, albeit grounded in a familiar world of autumnal grasslands and dilapidated buildings. And while both stories have their strengths, they don’t mingle successfully. Gosling flits from one to the other as both reach their respective climaxes. It is here that they butt up against one another most conspicuously.
He’s onto a winner with his cast though. Ronan and Hendricks are both rewarding as the determined feminine anchors of the film, while the chief antagonists here vie with one another for most memorable while never sharing a scene. Matt Smith’s Bully is a superb piece of against-type grandstanding, one which could well open him up to all sorts of dynamic roles in the future. Ben Mendelsohn’s Dave, meanwhile, often feels like a bewitching amalgamation of both Ben and Frank from Blue Velvet. A psychopathic crooner never happier than when he’s busting dance moves for a lady in a cage.
As a directorial debut there is a great amount of promise here. The film has taken something of a drubbing in some circles, and that seems a little harsh. Gosling is evidently eager to try out different styles of filmmaking. There are documentary-like interludes where the camera goes handheld, asides in which local citizens wander wholesale into the narrative like friendly marauders. Elsewhere, there are very deliberately stylised and constructed sequences of visual poetry, even if what is depicted is ugly or wantonly surreal. Like the stories themselves, these elements have a habit of colliding with inelegance, but the potential shouldn’t be dismissed. If Gosling can focus his tendencies into something more consistent then there’s no reason not to believe he has the makings of a genuine directorial talent. This might be a rough start, but it’s a bold and encouraging one.