Ryan Gosling makes a return to cinema screens – this time in the director’s chair – with his first feature film Lost River (2014), a dark fantasy of a family living in a ghost town to be. The film was largely dismissed by critics upon its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, yet there’s enough here to suggest that Gosling has a future behind – as well as in front – of the camera. Bones (Iain De Caestecker) lives with his young cute moppet of a brother Frankie and his mother Billy (Christina Hendricks) in a small town which is in imminent danger of destruction as banks repossess, houses are bulldozed and residents flee. Next door lives Rat (Saoirse Ronan) with her pet rat Nick and her terminally nostalgic grandmother.
Rat believes the has been cursed as a result of the flooding of an old town by the new reservoir, but there are more pressing dangers, embodied by the wrecking crews of the foreclosure vultures, the sleazy influence of the bank manager Dave (Ben Mendelsohn) and the local psychopath Bully (Matt Smith) whose favourite punishment is to snip his victims lips off with a pair of scissors. Facing financial ruin and three months behind on the mortgage payments, Billy gets a new job at a strange horror cabaret run by Dave and starring Cat (Eva Mendez) as its scream queen. Bones tries to contribute what he can, looking after his young brother Frank and he fixing his car ready for escape, and steels copper from the abandoned buildings. This brings him into a collision course with Bully who is now looking to kill him.
Wider society seems to be entirely absent. Fire trucks go by but there’s no law and order and a sense of dangerous isolation and vulnerability for those at the bottom. Orson Welles once said that being a film director was a little like having a train set. For Gosling it seems to be train set, a paint box and a whole crate of star studded action figures to play with and he throws them at the screen willy-nilly, in a way which – despite being rarely coherent and often indulgent – is at least exuberant and entertaining. Having sat at the feet of some brilliant directors, Gosling is unabashed at making their influence felt. Benoît Debie’s (Irreversible) cinematography provides us with some Terrence Malick-inspired magic hours, Nicolas Winding Refn-shaded neon colour schemes and over it booms an industrial score by Johnny Jewel.
However, the influence most obvious here is that of David Lynch, filtered through the art of Edward Hopper. Streetlamps disappear into a reservoir, leading the way to a sunken town. The story doesn’t bare much thinking about and the characters’ names seem to single that this should all be viewed as some kind of twisted fairytale, but Gosling is much more interested in his visuals than in coherence. His actors give larger-than-life performances, with Mendelsohn’s Dave relishing the opportunity to do more with more, singing and dancing and delighting in upsetting Billy. Perhaps on account of its superstar director, Lost River has received a fairly rough ride from an army of detractors, but this is the kind of oddball midnight movie that could easily gain a cult following and there are delights to be had in the midst.
This review of Lost River was originally published on 22 May 2014 as part of our Cannes Film Festival coverage.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty