Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, Lost River, is a deeply maddening film. It really is. It’s maddening because its style promises a more intriguing film than the one it eventually delivers, because there’s such a clarity of purpose that its failings are all the more pronounced, because there’s so much talent on hand, wholly committed to the material, for a film that doesn’t know what it wants to be and never decides, instead opting to synthesize all of its many influences into one strange, unwieldy beast of a quasi-fairytale. By the time it reaches its end, two things are clear: that Gosling is a director of overwhelming potential in the future, and that this is not a particularly great start to a secondary career.
Set in a surrealist’s wet dream reverie of Detroit (not outright, but it’s distinctly obvious in both setting and theme), Lost River is ostensibly the story of a family attempting to find its way in a world that’s forgotten it, a city that actively seeks to eradicate it, and a neighborhood fraught with violence and fear. Bones (Iain De Caestecker) wanders through the abandoned ruins of a once-great city, the place his mother Billy (Christina Hendricks) once called home, foraging for spare metals that he can cash in with the hope of fixing his rundown car and leaving for good. He loves his little brother, but it’s not enough to separate him from his mixture of pity and contempt for Billy and his desire to up and go.
But then, there’s Rat (Saoirse Ronan). She lives next door with her borderline-comatose grandmother, a woman so tethered to since-lost memories of her deceased husband that she can barely muster the energy to don her memorial veil and watch old videos of him. Rat and Bones find peace in one another, but it’s not enough to stave off the wanderlust that affects them both. And then there’s the lingering problem that is Bully (Matt Smith, so gaunt and muscular he’s almost unrecognizable), the self-proclaimed king of Lost River, who’s quick to violence and quicker to aggressive discipline of anybody who would dare defy him. As Bones tries to find a way out for he and his brother and Rat and Billy, a better life that they’ve been told isn’t for them, the stakes pile up. As if Bully weren’t enough of a problem, there’s also Dave (Ben Mendelsohn), the banker who owns Bones’ house. Dave also owns a lot more than that, including a grotesque burlesque starring a “Goddess of Gore” (Eva Mendes), but then, this is how Lost River works. You scrap to survive, or you submit to the people who can help keep you afloat.
Lost River is a film rife with things to say, a film of countless ideas, ambition, and vision. It’s a vision that resembles the visions of a number of other filmmakers from Lynch to Refn and onward, but it’s distinctive all the same. And this is why it’s so upsetting to acknowledge that it’s also an utter misfire in nearly every way, a film that mistakes piles of mysteries and striking visuals for any semblance of narrative structure, a film which employs surrealism as a substitute for substance. Gosling’s allegory for the decline of a formerly proud American city borders on exploitative in its glorification of urban decay and economic collapse and adds ever more curiosities without ever meaningfully addressing the established themes or their implications.
This isn’t to say that the film is entirely meritless, just that it’s a trainwreck as overexerted debut features go. Caestecker gives an assured (if mostly one-note) performance as Bones, the human center of an increasingly bizarre tale, a young man who wants to provide a better life for his family, but has already started well behind the curve. This speaks to Gosling’s general vision of American downturn; an early exchange between Bones and a local suggests that most residents of Lost River “don’t wanna leave, but [they] wanna live.” There have been “six lost rivers in the past year,” and survival no longer just means inconvenience. It means a violent level of sacrifice, as evidenced in everything from Billy’s eventual submission to a seedy nightclub of perversions that Dave runs on the side to Bones’ journey into one of the abandoned, underwater towns nearby in an attempt to reverse the hex placed on the town years before most of the film’s characters were ever born at all.
Gosling, for his part, is coming from a clear place of intention and meaning, which makes Lost River’s eventual collapse all the more maddening. After a strong, visually striking, resonant start, Lost River quickly descends into a fugue of memorable imagery signifying little and regularly abandons its established motifs for others, cycling between styles and genres and purposes depending on the scene. If anything, the film suffers from an overabundance of things to say. This is a good problem to have for a filmmaker in his early years of creation, and at the very least, Lost River suggests that Gosling should in no way stop here. He has a distinct aesthetic, albeit one informed by many others, and while a clarity of vision isn’t enough to justify a film as unfocused as this one, it’s still something.