Lost River

In DVD/Blu-ray by Alex Moss Editor

Lost River is the debut feature film of Ryan Gosling. Yes, that Ryan Gosling, the same Ryan Gosling who starred in Drive, Crazy Stupid Love and of course The Notebook. The same Ryan Gosling who oozes that effortless Steve McQueen cool on film, the same Ryan Gosling who in the past few years has become one of Hollywood’s most desirable actors having spawned countless memes and crushes around the world. It takes a brave man to take the leap into directing while at the height of his acting career. When Ben Affleck took the plunge he was at a low in his acting trajectory. But perhaps working with George Clooney on The Ides Of March inspired Gosling to try his hand behind the camera. The result is, well, complicated.

In the rundown town of Lost River Billy, Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks proving that she is always magnetic, lives with her two sons Bones, played with wide-eyed, pent-up frustration by Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D’s Iain De Caestecker, and toddler Billy. During the day Bones travels the dilapidated city stripping abandoned houses for scrap while trying to avoid local hood Bully, an over-the-top, cartoonish performance from Matt Smith, who has laid claim to the city. With the mortgage due and Billy not having any money left bank manager Dave (Ben Mendelsohn) offers her a job that drags her into a seedy underworld. Meanwhile Bones, with the help of neighbour Rat, played by a seriously wasted Saoirse Ronan, discovers a town flooded beneath the local reservoir.

From the outset it’s clear what Gosling is trying to achieve with Lost River. His visuals, themes and ideas on offer are all intended to dissect the disintegration of the American Dream. In this world, albeit heightened, the only ones to prosper are the moneymen and the criminals, telling them apart is easy even if the lines blur between the two.

There is no doubt that Gosling is a filmmaker with a flair for the visual. He’s clearly learned from his two films with Nicolas Winding Refn that a neon-drenched pallet juxtaposed with something more organic conjures a hypnotic look. Indeed on this form, borrowing heavily from the likes of Refn, Terrence Malick and his Place Beyond The Pines director Derek Cianfrance, Gosling could be a director to keep an eye albeit one who needs to find his own style rather than emulating others.

The issues, and they are many, arise from his desperation to tell an intentionally ambiguous and thematically driven film. What narrative there is feels superfluous to the mood Gosling wants to inject. It’s a case of too many ideas and too many visual motifs being shoehorned in to one film to ever tell anything coherent. The end result leaves you frustrated. Because Gosling is undoubtedly a director with a good eye, his use of the decaying Detroit often rings powerful and daunting. But his screenplay is haphazard, lurching from story to theme without ever giving either the room to develop and progress. It is an example of an artist very much in the fledging stages of their expression, as such it often borders on the edges of a student film.

On this form there is no doubting that Gosling is a director with an interesting style but his writing is messy. Lost River is not the calamity many have made out but it never fully satisfies leaving an empty disengagement from both story and character.

Lost River

In Films by Sammy Hall

It may well be impossible to approach, view and reflect on Lost River without the knowledge/context of the phenomena that is Ryan Gosling. Audiences and critics alike will find themselves caught in an odd catch 22, where they simultaneously hope for the best from a talent that has proven his capacity for engaging and effortlessly cool performances, but know full-well to expect the worst from a somewhat premature foray into the precarious world of writing/directing. There is no doubt his recent stature and success within the film industry has enabled him to produce his own debut feature with a cast, budget and freedom that many would envy and some resent. However, this has without doubt prevented him from trialling his own cinematic creativity on a more intimate and forgiving stage.

Lost River, the naively dreamlike feature in question, is set in a dystopian Detriot suburbia that serves as a strange, demonic landscape within which Gosling’s parable of the broken American dream unravels. We find ourselves trailing the quaintly christened Bones and Billy, a son and mother double act nobly striving to survive in an unforgiving and cruel world. They dream of better lives that seem implausibly out of reach… yes, that ol’ well-trodden nugget.

Bones inhabits the industrial undergrowth, scavenging for copper to trade at the local dump, which pits him against the ruthlessly psychotic Bully. Billy, on the other hand, desperately out of options, strikes a deal with a morally-corrupt banker to perform at a Lynchian cabaret club in order to retain their derelict house. It’s a plainly told tale that centres on likable do-gooders struggling in a world where monsters dominate and evil permeates. The focus is unapologetically held on the idiosyncrasies and oddities that decorate the city, which warrants the faint believability in the plot’s fantastical elements.

Iain De Caestecker shines as the brooding, good-hearted Bones, providing an impressively  reserved and mature performance that strongly argues he should spend more time invested in unique independent projects rather than wilting away in Marvel’s serialized TV spin-off Agents of Shield. Unsurprisingly, Christina Hendricks continues her trend of consistently solid turns as desperate mother Billy, and with the immaculate support of Ben Mendelsohn, Matt Smith and Saoirse Ronan, they collectively construct a cohesive ensemble that the audience can sink their teeth into.

However, the overly-stylized cinematography and clichéd nightmarish narrative curb any long lasting impression and leave you frustrated at Gosling’s artistic simplicity. The blatant homage to the director’s prior collaborators and idols – Nicolas Winding Refn, David Lynch, Harmony Korine and Derek Cianfrance to name a few – unfortunately take centre stage and leave little room for our beloved director to develop his own voice and style.

It’s an interesting thought to consider what critics and audiences would have made of this had it not been the creative debut of the world’s most lovable yet divisive star. But you can’t ignore the glaring shortcomings of Lost River, whether it’s the derivative visuals or the pedestrian thematic standards reached.

Yet there is just enough confidence and promise in his ideas, if more than just a glimmer, to suggest he could have an intriguing career ahead… one that’s not just in-front of the camera. He may need to take more time on subsequent projects, with priority given to his own ideas, rather than those of others.