Like a pilfered, Fabergé egg, Ryan Gosling’s freshman effort, Lost River, is a sight to behold but completely hollow beneath its bejeweled veneer. Under the tutelage of his mentor, Nicolas Winding Refn, Gosling has developed a unique visual style — complete with the trappings of Refn’s neon beauty — yet his storytelling leaves much to be desired. Copious shots of decaying urban sprawl suggest a great hopelessness, and a gravity that is never fully explored.
Lost River has been destroyed by the mortgage crisis. Billy (Christina Hendricks) is struggling to pay the mortgage on her house after the interest rates drastically increase. Her disparately aged sons, Bones (Iain De Caestecker) and his infant brother Franky (Landyn Stewart), must fend for themselves in the crumbling ruins of the long-forgotten town. Gosling’s camera follows at a substantial distance — often distracted by a burning home or vegetative overgrowth — as Bones scrapes together money to fix his car and leave this all but abandoned town. While his mother is being coerced into employment at an underground fetish club (run by the always-villainous Ben Mendelsohn), Bones becomes the target of Lost River’s villainous “overlord,” the aptly-named Bully (Matt Smith).
Lost River begins with a haunting visual sequence set to an oddly discordant “Deep Purple” by Larry Clinton (as sung by Mary Dugan), marking the first of many instances of seemingly inappropriate choices by our writer/director. As Gosling follows his considerably-talented cast across the vast, empty landscape of his urban hell, his visual acuity is plainly evident. While falling into numerous cliché visual tricks (lens flare behind a character walking through tall grass has been done to death), Gosling’s eye for beauty is a welcome surprise within the actor’s premier effort. Where Lost River suffers is in the wild dissonance between the propriety of the images, and the complete unimportance of the narrative. Refn and his contemporaries (David Gordon Green and Tim Sutton come to mind) are content to let the audience decipher their complex visual metaphors, however Gosling feels the need to explain everything. A beautiful sequence of destructive behavior — complete with artistic framing and beautiful colors — is begging to be dissected, but it’s wrapped up with “Bones is stealing copper to pay his rent.”
As if the over-expositional narrative was not enough, Gosling binds his actors with clunky dialogue and ham-handed one-liners. Hendricks is at her absolute best when silent: big doe-eyes filled to the brim with tears and memories of dejection and misery. The moment she is forced to argue with Bones or explain her circumstance, Billy’s voice becomes calloused and unfeeling; her dialogue carries nothing of value. Our villains, however, are gifted with intuitive comebacks and devastating one-liners. Mendelsohn’s Dave is truly a maniacal figure, and one the audience can never quite unravel. While completely underhanded, Dave can be strangely helpful. Matt Smith (The Eleventh Doctor, Dr. Who) is given minimal dialogue, but his presence looms over the film. Gosling would have been wise to take a lesson from Smith’s effectiveness as the villain — unnervingly quiet but explosively reactive and cunning. Ruling the veritable ghost town with a pair of craft scissors, Smith’s Bully is not physically or mentally imposing — his erratic behavior and insane temperament are the only weapons he needs.
Boasting a diverse range of potent visuals, Ryan Gosling’s Lost River shows great promise for his future career as a director. Unfortunately, a probing, dexterous camera proves to be no match for his nearly-inept writing. In the end, even a strong visual intellect cannot win the uphill battle against a senseless narrative and impotent dialogue.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of sunny San Diego, California. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.