In his directorial debut, Ryan Gosling channels artsy provocateurs such as his buddy Nicolas Winding Refn (director of Drive) and Harmony Korine, but fails to cement himself as a unique visual artist of his own. Lost River suggests that Gosling could have what it takes to pave his own path, but for now he loses his way after just a few steps.
To his credit, Gosling does a good job in the first act of establishing a consistent mood that lingers like a dark cloud over the entire film. The decaying post-apocalyptic fantasy world he sets up has an element of waterlogged magical realism reminiscent of Beasts of the Southern Wild, albeit a much more cold and foreboding variant. The town our characters inhabit, the eponymous Lost River, is cut off from the rest of the world, caught in an unending economic whirlpool that threatens to suck everyone in.
The setting is essentially a warped microcosm of the post-2008 lower-class, something I’m fairly certain Gosling has little true experience with but nonetheless offers some interesting perspective. There’s a wide range of social commentary, most intriguingly how the downtrodden indulge in forms of sometimes-twisted entertainment to console or distract from the painful realities of their lives.
The aesthetic elements of this universe blend well with the emotional through-line of the characters, who in their own ways each deal with feelings of deep longing for and loyalty towards a home that no longer seems hospitable or even inhabitable. The external and internal tone of the film work together beautifully to make Lost River an engaging and strangely inviting place. This paradoxically ominous beauty really pops thanks to another round of incredible camerawork from Benoit Debie (of Korine’s Spring Breakers). There are shots here, such of light posts jutting out of bodies of water and of bulldozers plowing through the innards of homes, that are masterful, evocative and unique.
The film continues to sustain its air of dark brooding as it introduces to the film’s great cast, with the most noteworthy performances coming from Ben Mendelsohn as an unashamedly sleazy banker who performs a very Blue Velvet-esque musical number, and Matt Smith as the next evolution of insane gangster (though James Franco’s Alien he is not). Christina Hendricks, Eva Mendes and Saoirse Ronin add further prestige to a project that stylistically feels like it would be full of unknowns if not for the high-profile Gosling name attached to it.
However, such a promising beginning can’t make up for a truly plodding second act and a dismally anticlimactic third one. Baby Goose never takes the story to interesting places. In fact, he doesn’t really take the story anywhere, instead settling for a tone piece that seems hellbent on dodging around the film’s most intriguing ideas and avoiding revealing anything interesting about these characters. The emotional distance that draws us in at the start later becomes frustrating as Gosling refuses to allow an inch of warmth, charm, or even soul to creep its way into his cold, brooding statue of a film. The cast are ultimately all wasted in roles that don’t give them the opportunity to feel real or sympathetic.
Aesthetically, the film also relies heavily on Detroit as a source of decay porn. Those from the Detroit area (like myself) will likely find the force of this fetishistic reliance on the city’s unfortunate condition to be troublesome. This year’s It Follows and last year’s Only Lovers Left Alive offer much more sensitive treatments of a city that is much more than crumbling architecture.
As it stands, Lost River is one-third a good film, two-thirds a pretentious mess. All the pieces are set up well but Gosling appears too afraid of altering any part of the thoughtfully-crafted world and cast of characters. Baby Goose may want us to think of him not as The Notebook’s sensitive Noah Calhoun but as a sophisticated, adult-oriented visionary. But no matter how striking his first film looks, the vision is slight, fleeting and lifeless.
Score: 2.5 out of 5