Written and Directed by: Ryan Gosling
Starring: Christina Hendricks, Iain De Caestecker, and Saoirse Ronan
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"As soon as the last town was drowned, a spell was cast..."
If nothing else, Ryan Gosling goes for broke with directorial debut Lost River, a feverish fairy tale that falls somewhere between a neon-soaked nightmare and dusk-splashed daydream. Clearly influenced by his time spent with Nicholas Winding Refn, Gosling has crafted a gorgeous, striking mood piece that’s more evocative than it is completely coherent. There’s an elusiveness to Lost River’s heightened sense of reality that paints an impressionistic but palpable sense of loss as it scatters broken American dreams and urban decay into jagged, Eurohorror-shaped shards. It might completely jell, but its laconic approach leaves empty spaces to get lost in as its intoxicating mood washes over you.
The story is one of those domestic, Lynchian nightmares: an opening credits sequence set to Billy Ward’s rendition of “Deep Purple” introduces an idyllic family of three who seem to live in relative tranquility despite their rustic surroundings. A peek below the surface, however, reveals squalor: the family lives in the shadow of a city’s crumbing ruins, where oldest son Bones (Ian De Caestecker) scavenges cars, strips houses, and clashes with Bully (Matt Smith), a local hood rat. During his downtime, he hangs out with his lonely neighbor Rat (Saoirse Ronan), a lonely girl whose only other company is her mute grandmother (Barbara Steele). Meanwhile, single mother Billy’s (Christina Hendricks) constant battle to keep her own house standing leads her to a bizarre underworld lorded over by a charming but sinister figure (Ben Mendelsohn).
Narratively speaking, Gosling has not written the most robust script: the gist of Lost River is more or less all right there in the synopsis, and viewers dreamily glide through this entrancing scene, hypnotized by every moment, intrigued by each sparse development. Despite plying his trade as an actor, Gosling hasn’t created a typical actor’s showcase: in lieu of florid dialogue and opportunities for dramatic displays, Lost River relies on a muted minimalism that has its actors shape characters out of gestures and brusque demonstrations, an approach that yields so indelible character work.
Smith and Mendelsohn are particularly towering as the film’s twin menaces: the former is a would-be Lord Humungous riding through an urban wasteland atop a recliner perched onto a ramshackle convertible, while the latter is a crooning, misogynist sleazebag. Of those caught in their shadow, Ronan and Hendricks are particularly breathtaking in their quiet desperation, two anchors in a bleak maelstrom of sex, violence, and disillusionment. On one level, Lost River is a specifically feminine nightmare about the chaotic lives of women caught up in the awful world of men: both Rat and Billy are terrorized by hyper-masculinity, though Gosling splits the difference in suggesting a progressive solution (as it is something of a fractured fairy tale, it follows that one requires a white knight).
As messy as the film can be, viewers still can’t help but be swept away in the ethereal turbulence. Nearly every frame of Lost River is absolutely mesmerizing: working with Enter the Void and Spring Breakers cinematographer Benoit Debie, Gosling transforms Detroit’s decaying outskirts into a Techniscope hellscape lit by neon signs and burning houses. He also stitches together previous collaborators’ techniques—the roving camera work of Derek Cianfrance, the dreamy montages of Terence Malick, the moody electronica of The Chromatics—to form a crazy quilt aesthetic of pure pastiche: Lost River is cinema as homage, a cobbled mass of familiar sights and sounds with little meaning beyond the atmosphere they evoke.
Never is this more apparent than it is in Gosling’s channeling of vintage Eurohorror, particularly the works of Bava, Argento, and Margheriti. One of the great and immediately recognizable movements in surreal filmmaking, this mesmerizing style informs Lost River much in the same manner the giallo has been distilled to impressionist touchstones in films like Amer and Berberian Sound Studio. Here, the signifiers are further unloosed from their genre, scattered like ashes into Grand Guignol burlesque shows, black gloves, peeling flesh, and the casting of Barbara Steele as a grieving widow draped in funeral garb.
But rather than spin a traditional horror tale, Gosling overlays them like accents onto a neo-Southern gothic Recession era fable with an eye towards magical realism. Steele’s bride in black hails from an old part of town that now rests beneath a man-made river, its ruins submerged by the inexorable march of capitalism while ironically hiding a key capable of breaking the cycle of despair for these characters. For all its ellipses, Lost River is rather blunt in its themes and preoccupations: it deals with ruins on top of ruins, empty spaces nestled within empty spaces, where the only way out is to literally dive in to recover something intangible that has been lost.
Whether or not all these elements cohere is debatable—sometimes, it feels like Gosling is more concerned with striking imagery than he is storytelling. At some point, nightmare logic becomes an exercise in hand-waving, and Lost River treads dangerously to the line of being cool for cool’s sake. However, I’ll take a cool imitator with the gall to crib from masters for such an ambitious, distinctive passion project, especially one strikes the sort of chords I find irresistible. Maybe we know more about Ryan Gosling’s favorite movies than we do about what a “Ryan Gosling movie” looks like, but we also know that he’s been paying close attention. I’ll be paying close attention to his future work now, too.
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