Prior to the last two editions of the Cannes Film Festival, Ryan Gosling had nearly as much goodwill among film critics as he did on Tumblr. Drive was still in the public consciousness, "Hey Girl" memes were going strong, and all was right in the world. Then Only God Forgives happened. Gosling's second collaboration with director Nicolas Winding Refn was greeted by a chorus of boos at its Cannes premiere and didn't do much better once it hit theaters, not least because the Thailand-set phantasmagoria sapped Drive of everything that made it fun and flashy, while exposing the bruised male ego in all its ugliness.
Gosling's directorial debut fared just as poorly the following year: Lost River was heavily booed and the subject of critical scorn last May. In both cases, the negative reactions were overblown. Now being released on VOD the same day it hits actual theaters, the writer-director's dark fantasia is much better than advance word might lead you to believe.
Gosling's tale centers around a young man and his mother whose house is about to be foreclosed on (if not outright demolished) by their bank. It's more akin to an American nightmare than the American Dream. And thanks to wispy voiceover and increasingly surreal plotting, the film owes as much to Terrence Malick and David Lynch as it does to Refn. Although the movie is a bit rough around the edges and not exactly cutting-edge in its social commentary, its consistently dreamy visuals and a moody score help carry the film to great results.
The main character of the film is Bones, an 18-year-old played by Iain De Caestecker. Bones comes across a flooded part of town one day and, after telling his neighbor Rat (Saoirse Ronan) about it, Bones is made privy to a local fairytale. That area, which houses a kitschy dinosaur theme park, was flooded to create a reservoir. The flooding resulted in a number of deaths, including Rat's own grandfather, and thus left the remaining town of Lost River cursed. Lost River will stay under the dark spell until one of the submerged prehistoric beasts is disinterred from its watery grave.
The story feels like folklore for the Great Recession, an urban legend kids murmur to one another to stay scared and hopeful. Lost River belongs to a school of recent movies using the wilds of Detroit as an embodiment of the economic downturn and our slowly decaying society—Only Lovers Left Alive and It Follows preceded it. However, Gosling is less interested in the city itself than its allegorical implications. This may seem in poor taste to some, but the film is too fantastical to take at face value.
Bones is a metal scrapper. He spends his days stripping cooper from abandoned and condemned buildings, whether they're run-down apartments or old schools. He has to destroy these structures in order to extract their last remaining value, and the tenements he roams through are almost post-apocalyptic in appearance. Lost River takes place in a heightened reality akin to a ghoulish circus full of bullies and monsters, but it's very much rooted in the financial realities of the day. Though Gosling isn't always that clear or articulate in the point he's trying to get across with all this, he is sincere and aesthetically ambitious.
Said visuals are courtesy of cinematographer Benoit Debie, who's also responsible for the dream-pop flair of Enter the Void and Spring Breakers. Lost River has a similar reliance on confectionary colors cutting through the night, finding magic in the tension between light and dark. There's violence, too, though much of it is simulated or intentionally overwrought—Gosling has more restraint than his friend and collaborator Refn in this regard.
At the same time that Bones is getting into trouble with the local bully/copper-stripping kingpin for encroaching on his territory, his single mother Billy (Christina Hendricks) accepts her creepy banker's job offer at an underground nightclub vaguely reminiscent of Mulholland Drive's Club Silencio. Nothing too untoward happens onstage—some fake blood and guts and other macabre displays, mostly—but downstairs, where "the real money" is, are small "shells" the women lock themselves in to the delight of deep-pocketed customers. This hazy, neon-purple netherworld is one of Lost River's two most overtly dreamlike settings, the other being the flooded town itself. These are the scenes where the film really comes into its own.
Johnny Jewel's score is equally important to the movie's success, with synths and bells that would lull you to sleep and disturb your subconscious mind all night long. It embodies the deeply strange nature of Lost River, and like the film as a whole, it draws you in even as it seems poised to push you away.
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