If Wild at Heart is David Lynch’s surreal and oversexed take on The Wizard of Oz, then Ryan Gosling’s debut as a feature filmmaker, Lost River, is a dour and depressing dissection of the Brothers Grimm. It contains all the trademarks of a fairytale: a reluctant hero, evil adversaries, a magic talisman, and a backdrop that’s both believable and wholly unreal. All of these are reconfigured into an allegory about desperate people at the very fringes of an economically struggling society. When it works, it’s outstanding, visionary, and affecting. When it doesn’t, it’s indulgent and idiotic. Together, it’s the epitome of Shakespeare’s “Sound and Fury” quote, except this time around, there is some significance to the strangeness.
Gosling is clearly a student of Mr. Mulholland Dr. He’s also influenced by Harmony Korine, Dario Argento, and his collaborator of recent years, Nicolas Winding Refn. The film is saturated in bright, garish colors, the better to contrast against the sprawling urban decay in the background. Filmed in Detroit (looking more and more like a sad sci-fi dystopia by the day) and making excellent use of its rotting vistas, Gosling sets up a story of desperation and determination, people pressed to the breaking point while existing in the kind of narrative where, at any given moment, a fairy godmother or an enchanted ogre may show up.
The story centers on Billy (Christina Hendricks), a single mother struggling to raise her two boys, Bones (Ian De Caestecker) and Franky (Landyn Stewart). When the bank threatens to condemn and tear down their house, she asks a loan officer named Dave (Ben Mendelsohn) for help. He suggests she get a job and recommends a local nightclub where the patrons pay to see Grand Guignol-style scenes of gore. In the meantime, Bones roams the area stripping buildings of their valuable copper piping. This angers Bully (an unrecognizable Matt Smith) who claims to own all the material in the land. When someone fails to follow his directives, he cuts off their lips with a pair of scissors.
Bones soon meets up with Rat (Saoirse Ronan), a young girl from across the street. She lives with her mute grandmother (Barbara Steele) and spends her days dreaming of a better life. When Bones mentions a place behind the old zoo with streetlights in the water, she tells him of the myth of Lost River, and how bringing an object up from the sunken city in the depths of this manmade reservoir will lift “the curse” they all live under. As things get more and more desperate for his family, and with Bully tracing his every step, Bones decides to dive into the water and see if he can’t solve everyone’s problems once and for all.
Booed off the screens at Cannes and arriving with a reputation that’s spelled “D-I-S-A-S-T-E-R,” Lost River is actually a quite accomplished and overtly ambitious experiment. It’s Gosling going for broke, attempting to take his many divergent interests and bring them together in one fascinating film. Is it a failure? Hardly. Is it a complete and utter triumph? Same answer. The truth about this mesmerizing motion picture is somewhere in the middle. Had it been made 20 years ago, in the era of Miramax and unending indie monies, Gosling would be considered a considerable behind the lens talent to watch. Today, his effort is viewed as the egotistical tirade of an over-privileged Hollywood hunk.
Of course, that was the same thing they said about Only God Forgives, and in both cases, the criticisms are off base. Dangerous is not dull, and Lost River is nasty indeed. It sets up its ideas in carefully constructed set-pieces, each one offering insight into the troubles and travails of our characters. When we first meet Bones, he is trying to calm his baby brother down. He’s clearly been playing the role of father for a few years, and we sympathize with both his plight and his response to same. As he roams the vacant and violent streets of his unnamed city, we witness the signs of horror all around: random house fires, angry citizenry, above the law gangs, and perhaps most importantly, the lack of anything resembling normalcy. This is what he has to survive. We don’t think he’ll make it.
Even when Billy tries to talk her way out of a predatory mortgage with the man supposedly in charge of such things — Mendelsohn’s Dave — a strange sense of dread fills the air. We realize that something sinister is at foot, but we also believe that Gosling won’t let anything truly awful happen to his characters. The Blood and Guts Club, also run by Dave, adds to the danger, with crowds upstairs enjoying the fake violence while, downstairs, private rooms promise something far more threatening. We watch as Billy descends into such depths, hoping that her son will come along and save her. Rat, on the other hand, seems like a loose thread, an attempt by Gosling at a love interest for Bones that never quite reaches a level of emotional investment and/or interest.
With brilliant cinematography from Benoit Debie (who handled Korine’s Spring Breakers, as well as Irreversible and Enter the Void) and an almost Kubrickian desire to study every scene, Lost River can hardly be called bad. Instead, it’s complicated and convoluted, using real world horrors to bring old fashioned folklore to life. It may not match the mantle of the men who inspired it, but when it comes to creating a haunting, original vision, Ryan Gosling finds a way to make his muse meaningful.