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.