It almost feels wrong to offer any sort of “critical” opinion on something so artistically driven, because despite my own interpretation of the story at play, Lost River is precisely calculated through every shot Ryan Gosling orchestrates. Riddling his film with hints of Terrence Malick and Nicolas Winding Refn (two directors Ryan has worked with), the fearless visionary favors expressionism over substance by turning scenes into mini photo-shoots set against a hollow shell of a town.
Gosling wears his influences on his primped and textured sleeves, but he also begins to shape his own unique voice through each underwater graveyard and rubble-filled house the camera explores. Lost River is an ambitious attempt at individuality, but unlike Only God Forgives (a movie where the artistry demands validation), Gosling’s directorial debut feels a bit drab given the fragile foundation hidden underneath its beautiful exterior.
Lost River is a place of ruin, despair, and struggling inhabitants, but a single mother named Billy (Christina Hendricks) refuses to vacate the place she has called home for so long. With two mouths to feed, Billy finds herself in dire financial circumstances, and this is how she discovers an underground club that could lead to dangerous encounters. One of Billy’s sons, Bones (Iain De Casestecker), attempts to ease his mother’s burden, but finds his own trouble after pissing off a local crime lord named Bully (Matt Smith). With options running out, Bones decides to reverse the curse of Lost River once and for all, and save the remaining households from becoming another pile of forgotten memories.
Say what you want about the frail structure of Lost River, but Gosling has no problem impressing us through visual beauty and stunning frames that capture the essence of every broken locale. Cinematographer Benoît Debie works well with Gosling to deliver a vast spectrum of eye-catching shots, from the Grand Guignol-inspired nightclub that oozes Gothic charm, to Bones’ exploration of the sunken mysteries that hide in the washed-over town below. In no way does Gosling create a scary film, but as a horror lover, certain moments seem to be ripped from the pages of dark fables, pitting a floating Bones against pitch-black nightscapes that are illuminated only by a red-colored flare. Empty, trash-polluted houses become characters in their own right, while other scenes find themselves tinted in reddish/pink filters that strike a sleazy, neon hue.
Then again, it does feel as if Lost River has a stronger focus on cinematic appeal than it does on tight storytelling. Gosling skips around the different lost souls who roam Lost River, between Bones’ scrap-metal-digging and Billy’s grotesque stage shows (bloody, intriguing shows), but the plots tie together like hazy fever-dreams that are stronger as separate bits – not a cohesive stream. There are undeniable moments of character-driven bliss, be it Hendricks’ self-surgical showstopper or Ben Mendelsohn’s epic dance sequence, but overall, Gosling’s twisted fairy tale relies on absurdity to guide us through metaphors and grander gestures. We want to share so deeply in De Casestecker’s pain, as his character steps up where his father never did, but so much is dependent on a distant blankness that becomes harder and harder to relate to.
That’s the unfortunate problem with Lost River – through all the whimsical shots of small children running through tall, swaying blades of grass, all the Malickian influences, all the Mendelsohn wackiness, there’s a vulnerable core that feels like it can crumble at any moment. Certain scenes are transplanted from some glossy sci-fi flick (plastic people bubble), while others feel like they’re part of a dystopian survival film. Gosling pulls from so many different cinematic places, but everything starts to blur together in a vibrant, intoxicating, and dizzying whirlwind. There are too many different styles invited to the party that is Lost River, and over time, the room starts to feel like an overcrowded fire hazard.
Here’s my final say – Lost River should not be avoided because you read a negative review. Everyone is going to have their own take on Gosling’s much-talked-about first feature, and they should. He’s a talented artist who has a tremendous visual eye, and the accompanying soundtrack hits upon fantastic notes that are always welcome, but he seems to be asking a bit too much from his audience this time around. Maybe you’ll disagree, and maybe you won’t find that longer spells of sullen gazes tend to languish over time, but that’s the beauty of Lost River. It’s a film that begs to be discussed, for better or worse.