Lost River full movie review - A compelling bit of cinema despite the warts.
Charting the career of Ryan Gosling has been like examining the exploits of a half-crazed explorer who, after conquering the seven continents, decided to wander out into the great white wastes on the map where there be dragons.
After a meteoric rise in popularity with films like The Notebook and critical adoration in Half Nelson, he decided to eschew the mainstream heartthrob role and take on parts that were more off the beaten path. First came Lars and the Real Girl. Then came his laconic-but-instantly-iconic role in future best bud Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive. Just when he seemed ready to zig back to mainstream adoration, he zagged?by taking a seat in the director's chair himself.
And so we have Lost River, a film that could pretty much be considered the neon-bathed blood child of Santa Sangre and Beasts of the Southern Wild. When the film premiered at Cannes last year, it was met with resounding criticism (not unlike the previous Gosling film to debut there, Refn's Bangkok-set Only God Forgives). Yet if something elicits that level of vitriol, that means it at least must be seen.
In truth, the film is borne out of Gosling's influences, which he wears on his sleeve quite garishly. There's a little Lynch, there's a little more of Refn, there's even some Gaspar Noe and Derek Cianfrance peppered throughout the place. It makes for a bizarre and unsettling mulligan stew that might be?hell, probably is?a touch radioactive.
Nevertheless, there's something beautiful about Lost River, which at its core feels like an American folk tale given a 21st-century jolt. Set in the dying titular town that may or may not be a Detroit analogue, a single mother named Billy (Christina Hendricks) desperately tries to keep herself and her two sons afloat, even as the mortgage payments fall behind and her home is about to be repossessed. Billy, a waitress by trade, can't make ends meet . . . until, that is, she is met with a proposition by her bank manager (Ben Mendelsohn, skeevy as usual despite gussying up in a suit and tie this time) to take a job at a nightclub that specializes in the freaky-erotic.
Meanwhile, her elder son Bones (Iain De Caestecker, who comes off as a younger clone of Gosling here, right down to the brooding silence) recognizes the dire straits they're in and pitches in by stripping dilapidated ruins for copper wire, only to cross paths with a strutting, skinheaded psycho named Bully (Matt Smith of Doctor Who fame). When he's not trying to keep out of Bully's line of sight, Bones cares for his baby brother Frankie while at the same time making eyes at his neighbor, a pretty girl with the unlikely name of Rat (Saoirse Ronan). Through her, Bones learns of the mythology of Lost River, and how there may be a monster lurking in its watery underbelly. Gosling has kickstarted two stories here, and while both exist in the same milieu, they are nevertheless wildly divergent.
And that, part and parcel, is the biggest flaw of Lost River. Kubrick once said that a director is a taste machine, sifting through various ideas and seeing which ones work the best. Gosling is a cinematic gourmand, devouring his influences with relish and spewing them out with gusto. Unfortunately, he probably ought to have limited himself to one course instead of two.
The Bones subplot, while boasting some truly gorgeous imagery (you really can't beat Benoît Debie's Korine-esque cinematography), feels vacuous. I think a large part of it is that, despite Ronan and Smith giving it their all and both crafting unique characters and giving bold performances, that young De Caestecker just doesn't have the necessary screen presence to hold our attention for long . . . and, quite frankly, I feel that Gosling himself wasn't terribly interested in this particular plot of the film. He knows enough to give it some pep in certain scenes, but whenever the film switches over to Billy's perspective, everything galvanizes, and we know where Gosling's heart is.
And it's easy to see why: this is where Gosling is allowed to drop plot and let image and atmosphere take hold. When Billy joins the act, she meets a beautiful burlesque dancer (Eva Mendes) who is something of her Charon into the dark world this nightclub represents. And what it represents is a sick fascination with death, blood, deformity. When we first see Mendes's character, bathed gloriously in violet, she brings to mind the creepy ceremony from Jodorowsky's Santa Sangre, and when Billy allows herself to be part of the show itself by encasing herself in a clear plastic woman's outline, Gosling's crazed creepiness hits Lynchian levels of inspiration. It doesn't hurt that Mendelsohn, who feels like a love child of Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell's characters in Blue Velvet, gets to channel both those guys in these scenes (in one instance, he croons a Hank Williams tune while oozing menace).
For a debut, Lost River definitely shows a great bit of promise for a fledgling director. Gosling's biggest challenge now is refining his technique, paring down his influences and finding an original bent to take. There is a unique voice in there somewhere, buried under all the homages. And while Lost River feels aimless, it's still hypnotic.