There’s a point about midway through Lost River, Ryan Gosling’s vibrant but frustrating feature directing debut, where the film takes an astonishing artistic risk, essentially lifting beat for beat an extended sequence from Blue Velvet, where Dean Stockwell croons “In Dreams” to a captive audience. It’s the point at which an engaging setup, exciting cast, and talented crew, are finally drowned by Gosling’s difficulty in finding his own directorial voice. The film invites the question, can you claim to have been inspired by something, if you do nothing new with those inspirations?
The film has an engaging enough premise. A decaying former industrial metropolis sits as at the edge of a fetid reservoir, formed on top of the flooded bones of several smaller towns several decades ago. Christina Hendricks stars as Billy, a single mother trying to save her childhood home from demolition by taking a job in a gory strip show on the edge of town. Her eldest son, Bones, spends his days raiding copper wire from abandoned buildings, and attempting to outrun Matt Smith’s Bully, a crazed, flamboyant hoodlum with a penchant for cutting off people’s lips.
At the same time, Bones is falling for Rat, Saoirse Ronan, who spends her nights with her vampiric grandmother, who sits in silent repose, still mourning the death of her husband long ago. Everyone is caught up in memories of the past. Time stands still, conversations get stuck in loops, characters watch old films again and again. The town is caught in a stupor. “The only way to break the curse is to bring the monster to the surface” Rat tells Bones.
It’s an anti-capitalist Southern gothic fable. The film has magic in its grimy, delicate lights and lurid colours which emerge from the inky blackness of the town. Gosling, if nothing else, has a grasp on tone, and an eye for an arresting image. The pastel miasma of the rooms beneath the strip joint, for instance, tie Billy’s struggle to that of Bones, as both descend into the town’s underworlds to retrieve various forms of monsters from the depths. And the film does have things to say. The bloody strip show, where under a campy Eva Mendes, women play at mutilating their faces and bodies for the baying crowd, strikes a chord as the women offer their peeled-off skin to their male audience in return for their tips.
The film has things to say about what people really trade in unbalanced relations, primarily between classes, and between genders, but these ideas are mostly obscured by Gosling’s unsteady stewardship, and the finger prints of the litany of directorial inspirations he employs. It’s Lynch, it’s Refn, it’s Malick, it’s Korine, it’s Noé. Yet somehow, improbably, it still feels a little bit Gosling. There’s something personal being expressed here. He conjures a stillness, an inconsequence, which feels like something of his own. But just like the film’s titular town, it gets lost amongst the murk.
But the film also deals uncomfortably with gender, and particularly race. If Gosling’s camera at least avoids leering at his female characters, he does locate a paternal protectionism in the film’s perspective, with the film’s treatment of women’s agency, whilst never entirely appealing, erring a little on the side of the puritanical. Worse, any characters of colour are bit parts, stereotypically earthy cyphers full of jive talk, mysticism and little else. They’re brought in and out of the film randomly, just more set dressing to go with the dilapidated buildings and poverty-porn.
Make no mistake, Lost River is a mess, but if nothing else it’s a brazen piece of filmmaking. There’s surely no way Gosling could have conceived of a positive reception to a film so derivative, so obvious, so unabashedly ‘arty,’ and from a first time actor-turned-director no less! But he made it anyway. Unfortunately, by the muddled, stifled ending, he reveals himself as an entirely inessential filmmaker, a curator of imagery rather than a true storyteller. Like his characters, Gosling can’t stop pining for what once was. In his case, for the giants of independent cinema.