By: Josh Chenoweth
Lost River marks the directorial and writing debuts of actor Ryan Gosling, known for mainstream successes like The Notebook as well as critical darlings like Drive. After getting a less than pleasant response at Cannes in 2014, I was curious to see if Lost River was really all that bad. The answer: a resounding yes.
Shot in a decaying suburb near Detroit (where else?), Lost River focuses on Billy (Christina Hendricks), a single mother trying to provide for her sons Bones (Iain de Caestecker) and Franky (Landyn Stewart). While Billy works a waitressing job in a red-light district, Bones scrounges for scrap metal while avoiding Bully (Matt Smith) who is – you guessed it – a bully who terrorizes anyone who looks at him sideways. Bones also has Rat (Saorise Ronan) to hang around with when she’s not looking after her depressed and silent Grandma, played by a misused Barbara Steele.
When the bank is set to foreclose on Billy’s home, she pleads with branch manager Dave (Ben Mendelsohn) and he sends for to find a new line of work at a club that puts on macabre and grotesque shows for its patrons. Meanwhile, Bones finds the remnants of an amusement park flooded by a dam project from decades ago, which Rat proclaims is the reason everything and everyone in the titular town feels less than real. Yeah, that last bit feels as out of place in the movie as you might think.
Gosling’s script and direction make a fairly straightforward story come off as ramblingly incoherent. Could a co-writer have made a difference? Probably, but this isn’t the film’s only issue. Gosling is doing his best impression of David Lynch with bits of Terrence Malick among others. The dream-like state of the world, which is even incorporated into the narrative, comes off as a painful attempt to make it seem deep and artistic but adds little due to how poorly told the story is. This does create some beautiful shots, though how much of that is Gosling or cinematographer Benoit Debie remains to be seen.
Ultimately, the best way to describe the feel of the movie is pretentious. It’s not helped by a score that incorporates synthesizer-esque sounds and pieces seemingly out of the 1950s. It makes you painfully aware that you’re supposed to be in awe of how different and profound the film is.
If there’s a saving grace to Lost River, asides from the occasional great shot, it’s the performances. Asides from Barbara Steele, who gets nothing to do in her role, everyone is giving it their all with the material provided. Hendricks is convincing as a caring mother in a dire situation, de Caestecker is likable enough as the son striving for a better life, and Ronan is sweet and demure. Matt Smith may be the one standout of the film as the bizarre and energetic Bully, the obvious, but not only, monster of this dark fantasy.
At the end of the day, you should give Lost River a pass. I’m going to be curious to see Gosling’s next film since he may have a decent filmmaker’s eye. Hopefully, he can hire a writing partner to help bring focus to the narrative.
Lost River hits Toronto’s The Royal Cinema on Friday, April 24 for an exclusive Canadian theatrical run. The film is now available to purchase on iTunes.