Director: Ryan Gosling
Cast: Christina Hendricks, Saoirse Ronan, Iain de Caestecker, Ben Mendelsohn, Matt Smith
Watch Lost River online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema / iTunes / TalkTalk TV / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / BFI Player / Google Play
Ryan Gosling makes his writing and directorial debut with Lost River, out in cinemas and on VOD this week. While it’s far from perfect and could have used a bit more focus in the script department, it’s by no means unwatchable, with Gosling’s strong visual sense showing promise for future endeavours.
The setting is the fictional American town of Lost River, a once-prosperous, leafy suburb that is now all but deserted due to economic collapse. One of the few remaining residents is Billy (Christina Hendricks), attractive single mother to her teenage son, Bones (Iain de Caestecker), and his younger brother, Franky (Landyn Stewart). Faced with losing her house, Billy throws herself on the mercy of sleazy financier Dave (Ben Mendelsohn), who insists she take a job in his bizarre underground nightclub, where grisly cabaret acts are performed by headliner Cat (Eva Mendes).
Meanwhile, Bones roams around Lost River salvaging materials from abandoned houses and attempting to steer clear of local thug Bully (Matt Smith), who likes to spend his days being driven round the neighbourhood in an armchair mounted on a convertible, shouting into a megaphone about how he owns the town. Bones also connects with his friendly neighbour, Rat (Saoirse Ronan), who lives with her batty, formerly glamorous grandmother (Barbara Steele), but his interest in her only serves to provoke Bully, who seems hell-bent on destroying Bones and everything he holds dear.
The film was largely shot in Detroit, which is appropriate, as Gosling apparently drew inspiration for the film after observing run-down areas of the city, while filming The Ides of March. Aided heavily by cinematographer Benoit Debie and composer Johnny Jewel, Gosling gives his fictional town a haunting, fairy tale quality, shot through with Southern Gothic and peopled with a gallery of grotesques, such as Rat’s grandmother and Bully’s henchman (Torrey Wigfield), who seems to have had his lips cut off.
Gosling wears his cinematic influences extremely heavily – there are deliberate echoes of David Lynch, Gaspar Noe, Terence Malick, Mario Bava, David Gordon Green, and Nicolas Winding Refn, and that’s just for starters. While on the one hand, it’s easy to accuse the film of being derivative, it’s also worth pointing out that these elements contribute significantly to the dream-like atmosphere of the film; it’s like the feverish nightmare of an avid subscriber to Sight & Sound.
It’s curiously heart-warming to see so many of Gosling’s former co-stars in the film – Mendes and Mendelsohn both appeared in The Place Beyond The Pines, while Hendricks had a minor role in Drive. It’s tempting to wonder if Gosling secured their services for mates’ rates, but at least he rewards them by giving them the most memorable scenes, notably Cat and Billy’s freakishly weird cabaret routines and Dave’s seductive dance while Billy is trapped inside what appears to be a plastic shell.
It’s fair to say that Lost River is stronger on atmosphere and general weirdness than it is on dialogue, plot or sense – if there’s a significance to the underwater city that Bones finds, for example, it remains a mystery by the film’s end. That said, Gosling clearly has a strong visual sense and there are striking images and scenes that will stay with you longer than you might think.