You have to respect Lost River. You don’t have to like it - and I don’t think it’s actually very good - but you have to respect it. The film is Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, and while you might expect a mumbly actor like Gosling to make a loose, mumblecore movie full of stretches of improv and over-emoting he has actually shown himself to be very visually inclined - perhaps at the expense of story and performance. He has made a movie that is often genuinely weird, always strikingly beautiful and, in the end, kind of empty.
There’s this town called Lost River that is falling apart as the economic crisis eats it up. Everybody is leaving, it’s generally post-apocalyptic (Gosling shot in Detroit to get the authentic ruined city look). Christina Hendricks is a single mom living there with her son (Iain De Castecker - yes, Fitz from Agents of SHIELD. I had a hard time getting past that, to be honest) and her younger son. Across the street, in one of the only other occupied houses, is Saorsie Ronan, living with her silent grandmother, Barbara Steele. The town is ruled by Matt Smith as a wasterlander type named Bully. Hendricks is behind on the house payments and the new bank loan officer - Ben Mendelsohn in a performance for the ages - gives her a job at a weird Grand Guignol burlesque club he runs. Stuff then happens.
Lost River plays out like a mix tape of Gosling’s influences, and it goes from social realism to Southern Gothic to Lynchian weirdness to Refn-y coolness to Argento colorful wackiness. The film jumps between each of these influences with ease, and that’s the best thing about it - Gosling is working within these different tones and styles but bringing them all together well. The movie never feels like “This is who I admire,” even though their fingerprints are all over the place (and some, from Guillermo del Toro to Nicholas Winding Refn, get thanked in the credits).
But none of that stuff comes together. The script - also by Gosling - is weak, which can be okay when the movie is as visually driven as this (Gosling wisely hired brilliant cinematographer Benoit Debie (Enter the Void, Spring Breakers) to shoot this movie, and together they create many beautiful and haunting images). But the script’s different limbs never come together to create anything that feels thematically coherent; there’s a lot of water and fire imagery and there’s a dinosaur head that lifts a curse and there’s a cool car with a comfy chair mounted on it and there’s an old lady watching the footage of her wedding in an infinite loop… all of which is cool but none of which truly coalesced for me. It’s possible I just didn’t get it on first viewing; I see some of what Gosling is going for, and there are interesting elements to pick at - Bully taking the infrastructure from abandoned buildings in a town haunted by the past where a grandmother is equally haunted by her past which is, in a Lynchian way I didn’t understand, tied into what haunts the town - but instead of having meaning Lost River ends up feeling kind of stoned.
Which sounds like a recommendation, and I wish it was. Lost River is incredibly interesting, and after a couple of other films it could end up being recontextualized in the shadow of the rest of Gosling’s directorial work, but as it stands now it’s interesting but bad. It’s certainly a great looking movie, a rarity in the indie world, and it’s got a crazy fun performance from Ben Mendelsohn who, thanks to upcoming Star Wars films, will soon be a household name, and it’s got a dedication to weirdness that makes me like Gosling more than I thought possible. But it just doesn’t work. Still: Gosling tried, and for that I have to admire him, and I’ll make room for his next directorial effort because it’s clear he cares about cinema.