For all its flaws, you can’t deny that Lost River shows a director with an ambitious personal vision for his artistry. Ridiculed at Cannes when it was released, Ryan Gosling’s directing debut frequently suggests a film-maker more concerned with style than with substance, but I for one feel there is more lurking under the murky waters of the actor’s fairytale of urban decay and wandering souls than many have proclaimed.
Set in an unnamed crumbling city, the last fragments of human presence are slowly moving away to greener pastures, far from the crime-ridden wasteland the film depicts: a surreal cityscape in which graffiti covered homes and industrial buildings are slowly being taken back by the luscious wilderness and vegetation that creeps into every corner and crack. Single mother Billy (Christina Hendricks) refuses to leave the home where she has spent the majority of her life, although she is quickly running out of the money needed to maintain the payments the bank demands. Her older son Bones (Iain De Caestecker) does what he can, scavenging for copper in the derelict buildings dotted across the largely abandoned city. This is a dangerous venture in itself, as Bones has to compete against the local copper baron, the aptly named Bully (Matt Smith) who aggressively asserts his ownership over all the copper in the area. Those who cross his path don’t make the same mistake twice.
In a bid to earn more money for her struggling family, Billy begins working a job at a local nightclub managed by a shady character known as Dave (an electrifying Ben Mendelsohn). The club itself is a bizarre, gothic collision of burlesque, vaudeville and blood-soaked horror. Dave believes his establishment caters to some of the most basic of human desires. As Billy becomes more absorbed by her job, Bones gets caught up in a tense territory war with Bully. He also strikes up a relationship with his neighbour, a reclusive girl called Rat (Saoirse Ronan): named for the fact she has a pet rat. The rat’s name is Nick.
From here, the mix of tensions and emotions begin to run high as each character struggles to survive in this harsh and unforgiving environment. Rat claims that the city itself is under some sort of spell, ever since part of it was condemned to be flooded for the construction of a dam. Whether or not this proves to be the case, only time will tell. For the time being Billy’s family, as well as Rat, fight to maintain their grip on a life which seems to spinning further and further out of control.
It is probably fair to say that Lost River is more of a mood piece than a straightforward narrative, and in this sense, the mood Gosling sets is breathtaking, eerie and always compelling. The cinematography is simply beautiful: a surreal blend of Malick-inspired Americana and the neon-dripped nightmares of Gosling’s own work with director Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives). The retro-tinged soundtrack also fits the bill precisely, another potential instance of Gosling taking his cue from Refn. But those familiar with Gosling’s musical side project, Dead Man’s Bones, which dates all the way back to 2009, won’t be surprised by the tone the director sets for his first outing in the director chair. Clearly, this is the kind of subject matter and atmosphere which Gosling finds so fascinating and in light of his previous musical work, Lost River works as a continuation of his interest in this gothic-imbued material and not the absurd abruption from his more romanticised star-persona many have labelled the film as being. Yes, there are moments in the film where Gosling is taking from other works (the influence of Lynch, Malick and even Dickens are all felt at certain points), but I’m more inclined to view these moments as homages rather than thievery. Gosling feels genuine in his appropriation of certain stylistic motifs and cinematic cues.
However, the crux of the issue with Lost River comes down to how Gosling marries his firmly established atmosphere and mood with the momentum of the narrative. It’s here where things begin to feel confused, as the film’s meandering plot points feel like they have been tacked on after the fact. The events which prompt certain actions from the characters, most notably Bones’ final confrontation with Bully, feel unprovoked and not thought out. It’s as if Gosling’s preoccupation with the film’s largely successful creation of setting and tone has distracted him from getting the narrative into the right gear. It’s all stops, starts and dead ends. Similarly confusing is how the ‘fairytale’ aspect is constantly alluded to, but neither the characters or the camera seem to be able to get to grips with it.
At its core, what does shine through is its very real story about the struggle of a single mother trying to do the best for her children and this part of the film certainly does echo far and above everything else it has to offer. Even if the final product feels uneven, Hendricks’ performance as Billy and the film’s overall depiction of a family unit on the edge of an abyss holds a lot of emotional resonance.
Overall and despite its weaknesses, Lost River is an enjoyable film with some truly hypnotic images and ideas. It’s true significance will only be made apparent in time; it has all the elements of a cult classic in the making. For now, it’s a curiosity, an intriguing look at the world-view of one of pop culture’s biggest personalities.