When his film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year, many critics reacted as if Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut had manifested itself into an abusive figure that vomited on their shoes, then repeatedly kicked their dog. Such a reaction was completely unearned by Lost River. There are flaws in the film, understandably, but it shines for them.
The film doesn’t follow a plot so much as it gravitates towards a heightened state of dream-like existence. Bones (Ian De Caestecker) is a teenager who strips houses for copper to support his mother, Billy (Christina Hendricks), and his little brother in an economically desperate and abandoned outskirts of a city (the film as shot in Detroit). Doing so gets him in trouble with a local self-proclaimed crime lord, Bully (Matt Smith). Billy, meanwhile, goes to work in a seedy, macabre nightclub run by Dave (Ben Mendelsohn), an equally seedy man. Elements of a fairy tale bleed through as Rat (Saoirse Ronan), Bones’s neighbor and budding romantic partner, tells him of a nearby town that is buried underwater that has left a curse over their neighborhood.
Lost River rides an inspired line between reality and heightened reality, existing in an almost perpetual dream state. Intimate moments play out like hazy memories disconnected from the present. Gosling and cinematographer Benoît Debie fill the frame with big, bold images that may overstretch themselves thematically (an abandoned house burning is representative of the economic and mental state of this dilapidated community), but are so admirably earnest that you forgive any misstep. At their best though, the images they construct are absolutely breathtaking. Consider how wondrously constructed the final act with Bones is, each shot bringing this previously alluded-to fairytale to life. In these moments, their world, our world, and a whole other surreal world come together in a fashion that is magnificent to behold.
Gosling’s script forms the dialogue in a way similar to its visual aesthetic. Characters speak to each other as if in a different plane of existence. They don’t speak dialogue to inform the audience, but to enhance the mythic and ethereal aspects of the world they inhabit. Johnny Jewel of Chromatics scores the film, his sounds transitioning between dream and nightmare to heighten the film’s mood. The core emotions of the scenes are fully realized with Jewel’s accompaniment; the aching core of romanticism, the tense edge of danger, and a mystical sense of wonder all come to life when Jewel’s score enters.
Ian De Caestecker is a capable presence as the central character, holding back significant amounts of despair at all times that engagingly inform the viewer of Bones rather than spell it out. Saoirse Ronan gives a tenderly felt performance as Rat, her first scene finding her performing a song to herself that is touching to witness. The chemistry between herself and Caestecker is lived in; you truly believe they’ve known each other since childhood from the elusive aura of their scenes. Christina Hendricks, meanwhile, gives an emotive performance, the weight of being a single mother fully felt in each of her actions. She’s always holding emotions back, like a crumbling wall, and she emotes that state of mind naturally.
In terms of the antagonists, Matt Smith is having a great time, magnetic and frightening as Bully, his screams the things of nightmares, shouting out threats over a megaphone like a personal mantra. His actions to others result in some of the most grueling images in the film. His psychosis is believable to the point where you tense up when he comes on-screen, as you believe that anything horrible is possible with him around. Elsewhere in Billy’s storyline, Ben Mendelsohn continues to be the most enigmatic and captivating sleazebag character actor around. His Dave’s an absolute predator, whose depravity only increases as the runtime progresses. Mendelsohn is the kind of actor that can play a despicable person like this without drifting into cartoonish or forced emotions. No matter how venomous Dave gets, he still feels real. With Mendelsohn, a sensual dance can feel threatening, and a song performance with strong Nick Cave vibes can be one of the most magnetic scenes in the film.
People have been quick to point out Gosling’s directorial influences here, with the man himself even openly citing frequent collaborators Derek Cianfrance and Nicolas Winding Refn as inspirations, and that press tour statement holds up in watching the film. It’s not imitative though, it’s truly inspired. Elements of Cianfrance’s raw and gritty realism merge with Winding Refn’s otherworldly heightened aesthetic to produce a mood and look that feels owned by Gosling rather than borrowed.
The idea of using economic disparity to create a heightened reality has been tried before, but feels immersive here rather than blindly hammered home like in, say, Beasts of the Southern Wild. Remnants of the past are all around to remind these characters of their desperate state. Rat’s grandmother (played by Barbara Steele) notably plays her old wedding video on constant repeat. Houses are nothing but the bare bones of history and abandoned memories, only useful to strip for remaining parts.
In some ways, the massive negative attention will benefit Lost River, as those who have come to the film after hearing so many bad things will have such low expectations that will then be leapfrogged. There are several moments where you can understand why some were turned off by the film. Some scenes between Caestecker and Hendricks feel melodramatic, while the allegory of economic disparity doesn’t always feel understood by the filmmakers. But in the film’s own way, its slight falters only add to its elusive nature and the stunning ambition on display. You can’t fault Gosling for having ambition. Perhaps the film is overambitious, as it reaches for things it doesn’t always fully grasp, but too much ambition is always a better problem to have than not enough. And in this case, Lost River’s problem is simultaneously its greatest strength.
— Dylan Griffin