In recent years, actors turned directors have started to become a reliable source of some of the more interesting films we’ve been fortunate enough to have seen. There of course are longtime directors like Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford, as well as recently developing filmmakers such as Ben Affleck and Melanie Laurent; and Ryan Gosling certainly proves to be one of the most intriguing contenders to emerge in the past couple of years. The resulting film is Lost River, a ghoulish and spirited fever dream which contains many built in self-conscious influences from the likes of David Lynch and Nicolas Winding Refn (a well known collaborator of Gosling’s), yet also manages to feel unique and like its own singular vision. That is, for the most part.
Lost River is set in a totally desolate and nearly destroyed Detroit, where a mother (Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks) and her son (played by Iain De Caestecker, the resident twink of Marvel’s Agents of Shield) are struggling to make ends meet while on the verge of losing their home. In a moment of dire need, Billy (the mother) is approached with an offer by her banker (played by a scene stealing Ben Mendolsohn) to participate in a freakish nightclub with a truly startling, stomach churning gimmick as the main plug. Meanwhile, her son Bones and a friend (a rat owning, singing Saoirse Ronan) are off going through all manner of surrealistic misadventures while trying to avoid the wrath of town’s main psychopath Bully (Matt Smith – insert Dr. Who pun of choice here).
For most actors turned directors, they tend to favor a more understated and non-showy approach to their films, as demonstrated by more well known names like Affleck and Eastwood, which is an understandable move for a working actor, giving both the performers and the screenplay room to shine without a lot of flashy direction getting in the way. But here, Ryan Gosling opts for a different route and seeks to place his stylistic influences right in the forefront of the proceedings. As mentioned earlier, there’ve been many comparisons to the likes of Lynch and Refn here, and not for no good reason either, but Gosling proves to be a capable enough filmmaker to bring his own singular vision to this story with only a few moments boardering on impersonation and/or parody of the two aforementioned filmmakers, particularly in some Refn-eqsue moments of brutal, outlandish violence, though these moments tend to be fortunately short lived.
All of the thick stylization and heavy atmosphere in the world would be appreciable to a certain degree on its own, but completely in vain if there wasn’t anything to care about at the center of this story, and thankfully Gosling populates this tale with a cast of likable characters, with performances from a troupe of solid actors, in a fairly limited ensemble. Nothing remarkably fresh to offer here, but there’s an understated tenderness to the relationship between certain characters, as well as a very raw emotion to the plight of Christina Hendricks beleaguered mother character. While there is noticeably more style than substance here, there’s certainly enough meat on this film’s bones to get through a hazy, at times damn near suffocating, sense of atmosphere.
While Lost River was met with a decidedly mixed response upon its premiere at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, looking through the recent parade of negative criticism this film has received, one can’t help but wonder if this wasn’t directed by Ryan Gosling and each critical think piece wasn’t pre-armed with comparisons to Refn or Lynch, would Lost River be received more favorably? Whatever the case, the film has been trimmed down ten minutes from the Cannes premiere version, and the cut that’s currently available on demand and in limited theatrical release is an enigmatic and wholly original, if flawed gem.
Overall, Ryan Gosling’s Lost River is ultimately an imperfect film, but it has enough virtues and consistently engaging applications of its central ideas to make it an unexpected pleasure. Not unlike the classic era actor turned director Charles Laughton’s masterful debut The Night of the Hunter (though this film obviously isn’t even in same class of that one’s greatness), Gosling shows a lot of promise here and hopefully isn’t too discouraged by relentless critical reception not to step back into the directors chair soon.