You have to hand it to Ryan Gosling. He could have kept his multitude of devoted fans happy by coasting through romantic comedies and action movies for decades. But instead he gravitated towards edgier indie fare, including Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive and Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine and A Place Beyond the Pines. Now he’s venturing even further from Hollywood’s comfort zone, not just by making his first film as a writer-director, but by making a film that is extravagantly, spookily odd. Quite a number of his devoted fans may rip up their Gosling posters after they’ve seen it.
Still, Lost River should earn him some new fans to take their place. It’s the work of a surprisingly confident and experimental young filmmaker, even if he’s not yet confident enough to move beyond his influences.
In the film’s opening minutes, the most obvious of those influences are Terrence Malick and David Gordon Green. The setting is the poverty-ravaged rural Deep South, where lyrical views of meadows lit by the low sun are contrasted with stark shots of derelict wooden houses. During the closing credits, a logo informs us that Lost River was filmed in Michigan, the go-to location for grimly post-apocalyptic decay, and it affords some striking imagery here. One scene is set in a defunct zoo, now engulfed in vegetation – the former residence of jungle animals is becoming an actual jungle.
One of the few remaining family homes in the area is occupied by a single mother (Christina Hendricks from Mad Men) and her two sons. Falling behind on her mortgage payments, she accepts a mysterious job offer made by her bank manager (Ben Mendelsohn). At this point, just as we’re settling into a gritty, naturalistic report from recession-era America, Gosling makes a sharp turn into David Lynch territory. The woman’s new job is in a creepily retro nightclub where the ghoulish cabaret involves gory faked stabbings and the ironic crooning of easy-listening songs. To give him his due, Gosling is so open about his debt to Lynch that he chooses Deep Purple as the film’s theme song – which is as close as you can get to Blue Velvet without it being Blue Velvet.
And there’s plenty more Lynchian weirdness where that came from. The woman’s son (Iain De Caestecker) meets a girl (Saoirse Ronan) who lives with her pet rat and her mute, reclusive grandmother. But their romance is threatened by a vicious thug named Bully (Matt Smith, the last Doctor Who), a man so nasty that he once removed his henchman’s lips with a pair of scissors. Why the henchman sticks by him is never explained, but nothing much makes sense in Lost River. Gosling is having so much fun with slow-motion, garish colours and offbeat editing that he soon gives up on logic. When he introduces a town at the bottom of the local reservoir, you start to wonder if he will ever be able to pull all of the macabre freakishness together into something coherent.
He doesn’t. As a piece of storytelling, Lost River is so hazy and fanciful that it could easily be dismissed as a bored A-list star’s pretentious self-indulgence. But as a fever dream of memorably strange visuals and disconcerting atmospherics, there’s no denying that it’s quite an accomplishment. When Gosling makes his next film, he should probably leave his Lynch and Malick DVDs on the shelf and hire a co-writer. But, if the skill and boldness he demonstrates in Lost River are any indication, his career behind the camera is worth following.