Some movies arrive in body bags, crushed under the weight of toxic advance word to which too many critics, eager to join the consensus pile-on, gleefully align themselves. Since its catastrophic reception at Cannes nearly a year ago, Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut has been one such marked for death, variously derided as an exercise in stylistic posturing that steals fatuously from David Lynch, Gaspar Noé, and, worst of all, Nicholas Winding Refn, who hasn’t recovered from the residual loathing for his own Only God Forgives. That those names read like an aspirational broteur wishlist didn’t help matters, nor do the standard poseur suspicions toward actor-turned-directors. While Lost River isn’t some misunderstood masterpiece, neither is it as awful as advertised. As incoherent dream states go, you could do a lot worse—and at this point, that’s what amounts to high praise.
In a sloppily sketched American backwater—AKA poverty tourism favorite Detroit, via Harmony Korine—Christina Hendricks plays a single mother whose childhood home is facing demolition, while her teenage son (Iain De Caestecker) tools around town stripping scrap material and his neighborhood pal (Saoirse Ronan) nurses her ailing grandmother—played by none other than ’60s Italian horror star Barbara Steele, veiled and heavily made up watching celluloid reruns of her past. That Gosling opens the film with a paint-by-numbers Malick lift, with Hendricks sashaying through the long, sun-dappled grass, is certainly the quickest route to setting teeth on edge, but take a look at the accompanying title card typeface: jagged and comic-book, recalling the trailer of some 1940s B-movie. There’s a kind of playfulness to it—have fun, maybe, and don’t take all of this crushingly seriously. In the mode of a fairy tale, there’s some vague mythical babble about the town’s dark origins and how it earned the name “Lost River,” which apparently accounts for the local despair—and how a villainous banking goon (Australian Ben Mendelsohn, “American” accent on atrocious full-throttle) can entice single mothers into freakish showgirl slavery for the benefit of the assembled Male Gaze.
So far, so messy. There’s a scattering of curious ideas here, to be sure, but Gosling doesn’t seem to want to commit to one or the other, preferring instead to blast away with image after overwhelming image, until the narrative gets blurred beneath a montage of glaring lights and saturated color. A subplot involved De Caestecker’s and Ronan’s teen sleuths uncovering the mysterious secret of Lost River becomes a distracting byway, whereas the Hendricks parlor story—a much more concise scenario, with a stronger character vision—could have sustained its own chamber piece. It’s a shame Gosling didn’t further pursue the nightclub’s claustrophobic underground as its own stand-alone act; the cooler sci-fi palette provides a welcome respite from the otherwise tiresomely fashionable neon ghetto.
As so often happens with first-time filmmakers, Gosling is frequently distracted by the thrill of capturing images, binging out on “bold” compositions and tilted angles like he’s cutting a TVC showreel. In that regard, he hits more than a few marks, and there are certain odd images that linger: Ronan riding in a leopard-print chair atop a convertible in the night sky; Eva Mendes’ silhouetted stage entrance as though the queen from Aliens was starring in a remade Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” clip; or Hendricks stripping fake flesh from her face like she’s applying eyeliner. (Could it be possible that Gosling’s a fan of Diane Lane’s beauty pageant meltdown in Miss All-American Beauty? If so, kudos to him.) Credit the great cinematographer Benoît Debie (Spring Breakers, The Runaways, Enter the Void) in large part for the striking imagery; his work behind the camera alone makes Lost River a curiosity on a visual level.
To call the whole thing (or anything, really) derivative is not saying anything revelatory. Sure, there are the too-close-for-comfort shadings of Refn, the women-in-distress tableaus of Lynch, and a wholesale burning-house theft from Lost Highway that might be unforgiveable had Lynch not lifted it from Aldrich and Kiss Me Deadly in the first place. At its very worst, Lost River suggests the insufferable sincerity of Gosling collaborator Derek Cianfrance, with its laughable explorations of the male ego dolled up in pretty colors. (At various points, Mendelsohn gets to impersonate both Nick Cave and Frank Booth, and it’s hard to tell whether to laugh with or at him, or both.) But more often than not, the movie gropes along into an approximation of its own kind of dream world, where coherency matters less than the accumulation of images to form a disassociative state in the viewer. Composer Johnny Jewel’s fairground synth score—and one particular piece reverberating in a subterranean passage—hint that Gosling may even have hoped to evoke Carnival of Souls, another (albeit masterful) tale of a woman cut adrift in an unspecified netherworld. If Gosling had maintained a more credible focus on exploring such a particular mood, he may have come away with something more memorable here.
Lost River isn’t a great movie by any stretch, but the critical response arguably says more about the knives drawn in response to expensive actor-director hubris than the middling quality of the product itself. Were it not for the Gosling brand name, it’s just possible that this might be regarded as another promising first-time misfire en route to cult status.