One gets the distinct impression that Ryan Gosling is a little uncomfortable with his status as, arguably, one of the prettiest people on the planet. Although he’s established a loyal fanbase with his roles in romantic dramas like The Notebook and Crazy Stupid Love, he always looks more comfortable in dreamy independents about violence and inner turmoil. He seems more interested in being an artiste than a star, and his taste in projects – particularly of late – reflect an eagerness to be challenged, not to be safe.
So it comes as no surprise that his directorial debut, Lost River, is weird as hell. It’s an ambitious, intermittently fascinating tale of an impoverished family struggling to get by in an increasingly apocalyptic Detroit, with ghost towns guarded by psychopaths with scissors, and night clubs that deal in eroticized gore, not sex.
Lost River depicts urban decay as a mythic landscape full of monsters and unsung heroes, and when it works, it’s not unlike magic. Iain De Caestecker plays Bones, who strips corpse houses of copper to pay to repair his broken down car. Christina Hendricks plays his mother, Billy, who ventures into a carnival of soullessness in order to save their home from a wicked banker (Ben Mendelsohn), who also wants her corrupted. Meanwhile, Saoirse Ronan plays Rat, the sweet girl across the street who lives with a lovelorn husk she calls a grandmother, and Matt Smith roams the desolate streets like Lord Humongous, cutting off the lips of everyone in his path.
They’re not just characters, they’re free-roaming symbols in Gosling’s particularly feverish dream. Watching Lost River, you begin to realize that he wants the rest of us to figure this out for him. What does the neon cocoon room represent? Why is an underwater city the key to survival? And is Ryan Gosling an impossibly deep person, or should he just cut down on spicy foods before bedtime?
The answer to that last question may be a little bit of both. When Lost River sweeps you away it’s genuinely haunting, a brand new fable for a brand new era. But Ryan Gosling sometimes gets caught up in the riptide of his own eccentricity, sacrificing our access to his characters’ inner worlds in favor of more vivid external surreality. The outer realms of Lost River are eery but his cast sometimes wanders them aimlessly through, exploring but not always living in all of these crumbling facades. At its worst, Lost River is a film to be looked at, not experienced, but at least it always looks intriguing.
But sometimes Gosling really does strike the right balance, matching his characters’ desperation to the many horrors that befall them. When that happens Lost River almost feels like it could herald a fresh new voice in filmmaking. But there are too many scenes that feel out of place, and some of them seem distractingly inspired by other filmmakers (at least a few with whom Gosling has worked). It’s a first film, and the growing pains are obvious, but this director clearly has talent, and he clearly has something meaningful to say. He may eventually figure out the best way to say it, with a more consistent tone and a better grasp of character.
When that day comes, watch out, because he’s going to give us something special. Until then, Lost River is a curious curio, worthy of note for the obvious passion that went into it, but not so much for the craftsmanship.