Ryan Gosling’s Lost River has received negative backlash since it’s premiere at Cannes last summer, a film often cited as a mash up of auteurs like David Lynch, and his most recent collaborator Nicolas Winding Refn, lacking any intrinsic value or distinctive voice. But rather than subjugating the piece as merely a visual homage to his counterparts, Gosling’s written, directorial debut may have more personal depth than meets the eye. Originally entitled “How to Catch a Monster,” Gosling had described the film as a dark fairy tale, of a family trying to hold on to their home. Opening with a child, Franky (Landyn Stewart), his teenage brother Bones (Iain De Caestecker) and their mother Billy (Christina Hendricks), set in a decaying town called Lost River, where everyone has left, and those who remain become cursed into a surreal realm of darkness, ennui and desolation.
Lost River seems like Gosling’s homage to the end of the American Dream. Shot in Detroit, a strong visual parallel of a city that started off with so much hope and promise, only to be shot down and left for dead. This is apparent in Lost River’s portrayal of a town with a history of theme parks, family values with overall joy only to meet its end when flooded into a man made river, isolating the town to its now decrepit, lonesome state. Billy, late on payments to keep her grandmother’s family home, is left to take a job from seedy banker Dave (played marvellously by the always majestic Ben Mendelsohn), in a burlesque nightclub where the audience gets their kick from mutilation, gore and horror. Joined by headliner Cat (dazzlingly played Eva Mendes), Billy, like any single mother in her situation opts to do what she has to for her family and home. Meanwhile Bones goes through trials of scraping for parts to sell, only to run into Bully (a career shifting villainous Matt Smith), who’s will to control Lost River has enabled him the “monster” Gosling intends Bones to catch. Rat (Saoirse Ronan), Bones’ neighbour and friend, says the only way to break the curse that haunts the town is to raise a beast from the river. What entails is a tale as twisted as Gosling’s inner demons, a theme fitting for the Canadian’s weirdly surreal personality. His previous musical act Dead Man’s Bones also welcomes the ghoulishness of death and rebirth, a theme aptly fitting for this cinematic American playground.
It is obvious that Gosling has learned his fair share from working with Refn, who’s “Only God Forgives” too takes advantage of night shots, violet neon colour palates, and stylistic gore and violence, but this is not to discredit Gosling’s personal cinematic journey through his own story that seems to mirror his own life. Growing up with a single mom and sister, struggling to pursue his dreams in an industry that wasn’t as welcoming to Canadians as it is now, Lost River is almost like a metaphorical jungle for the world Gosling has lived in since he started acting at twelve. The addition of his own flavours of shadows, and fairytale macabre all packaged in a film so relevant to today’s financial and economic times, Gosling creates a surreal post-apocalyptic parallel present that leaves the characters –and audience- to question if there is any hope in humanity’s own survival.
Visually memorable are the shots of houses on fire; the slow burning, destruction of home, stability and family foundation rings to mind the absence of any hope of God when left with monsters and demons ruling the streets. The characters, though lacking any fleshed out substance rather hold their own archetypal values of light and darkness, are all strengthened by the actors that embody them. Gosling succeeds in casting the right personas to emit these glimpses of tone, intention, and desire from characters that in an abstract, artsy film like this would typically be hollowed out shells. Gosling holds a strong graphic presence in the scope he was looking to achieve as a first time director, and though made with a two million dollar budget, there is room to grow as a filmmaker working on his craft.
Upon initial viewing Lost River may seem like something more than it wants to be, rather than what it is. Objectively, yes, it is very artistic in the merit Gosling sought to portray on screen, but the depth is lost in signaling out his work through the attributes we know of him as an actor and the directors he’s worked with, rather than as a filmmaker. Lost River is reminiscent of David Gordon Green’s debut “George Washington,” or Harmony Korine’s “Gummo,” both dynamic and styled in unique ways, capturing the grit of rural America. Those films both made names for themselves; Lost River is a strong effort, which I predict will eventually reach a cult status and following just the same, hoping Gosling keeps his ear to the grindstone and continues to deliver storytelling in the way that has garnered him such attention and acclaim thus far, despite what the critics may say.