In the largely deserted, rotting metropolis of Lost River, single mother of two Billy (Christina Hendricks) is two months behind on the payments that will stop the house she loves from being destroyed. Desperate, she confronts the new bank manager Dave (Ben Mendelsohn) about her situation, only for him to offer her employment at his nightclub, a strange burlesque/grand guignol establishment. She becomes a performer, but the increasingly forceful Dave keeps pressing for her to work downstairs, where the real money is to be made. Meanwhile her eldest son, Bones (Iain de Caestecker), is also deep in trouble, as his ‘work’ stripping copper from abandoned buildings brings him into conflict with local psycho Bully (Matt Smith*). He is torn between fleeing the city and staying for the sake of his mother, and for his burgeoning romance with neighbour Rat (Saiorse Ronan), who tells him that Lost River has been cursed, and that there is a way to break that curse.
Part modern American austerity drama, part neo-noir crime flick, part ‘hero’s journey’quest, Ryan Gosling’s first effort as writer/director is very likely going to split audiences between those who find it bewitching and those who find it unbearable. It’s going to get a proper kicking in some quarters, but I feel charitable towards it, mainly because the odd grab-bag of the cast (Joan from Mad Men! A Doctor Who! The creepy uncle out of Animal Kingdom! Eva Mendes!) seem to be having a whale of a time. Gosling, like many actor-turned-directors, indulges his cast their whims and fancies, always a risky strategy. But in this case it pays off in a number of odd little moments: Eva Mendes playing with Billy’s younger kid, plastered in fake blood; Matt Smith’s interaction with a baffled (non-pro) old lady on a gas station forecourt; Ben Mendelsohn’s freaky dancing, his OTT karaoke turn on ‘Cool Water’, all feel loose, semi-improvised and playful, in a style that fits with the film’s other ace card: its thrift shop explosion/Detroit ruin porn aesthetic. The buildings are crumbling, and in the process have become theatres. There’s a post–apocalyptic carnival float feel to the visual design, where everything seems to be repurposed and recycled, all shot in Benoit Debi‘s fluid, richly coloured William Egglestone-a-like photography.
It’s certainly beautiful, it just doesn’t feel all that purposeful. This is partly down to a bit of a charisma vacuum at its core: for whatever reason, the lead character Bones just feels a lot less interesting or likeable than everyone around him. He has a function in the story but doesn’t really have much to do but brood, glower and run away for most of the film. There’s also a problem in that Billy’s travails at the saturnine night club don’t really integrate with the Bones fairy tale business. It feels like one of David Lynch’s noir nightmares has gotten entangled somehow with a Beasts of the Southern Wild bit of mythical indie heart-on-sleevery, the two parts dancing, lava lamp style, but never quite mixing. The urgency of the last twenty minutes or so, as both tales darken and climax (and Jimmy Jewel’s score really kicks in**), largely override these quibbles, but for long stretches Lost River feels a bit shapeless and diffuse, a messy patchwork of pretty things, most of them second hand, some of them cherishable. It’s as if first-time screenwriter Ryan Gosling has, against his better instincts, corralled his loose and multifarious ideas into a Robert McKee approved three-act plot-point hitting screenplay, and first-time director Ryan Gosling has taken that screenplay and done spontaneous and interesting things with it.
Worth a gamble. Hell, you might love it.
*Smith and Mendelsohn, though never meeting on screen, effectively do battle here as two different flavours of menacing sociopath. Mendelsohn, a previous Gold winner in this field, is ahead on points, but Smith’s sexually threatening moment (‘can I stroke it?’) with Saoirse Ronan’s rat, deserves special mention.
**Seriously though, what is it with brooding, John Carpenter-esque synth scores these days? It’s like the composers for this, Drive, It Follows and a fair few others all had a meeting, or started a Carpenter fan club or something. I am most definitely not complaining, mind. Try playing the soundtrack to It Follows on your headphones after stepping off the nightbus of an evening. That’ll put a spring in your step.
Watch the trailer: