Lost River is a strange tale about a teenaged boy named “Bones” (Iain De Caestecker) and his mother Billy (Christina Hendricks) trying to survive in a slightly fictionalized, Ghost Town version of Detroit. “Bones” collects scrap metal from abandoned houses while trying to avoid the sinister, literally-named “Bully” (Doctor Who‘s Matt Smith), while Billy is forced to work as a performer at a creepy theatre of the macabre in order to keep their home from becoming like the ones Bones strips. As Billy is learning the ways of this surreal underworld, Bones discovers a literal underworld in an old part of town now underwater.
The predominant qualifier for any discussion around Lost River thus far is that it’s the directorial debut of actor Ryan Gosling. It’s unfortunate because any criticism or analysis of the film will be heavily influenced by that, when it really should just be judged as its own entity, not merely the indulgence of a well-known actor. I would have preferred not knowing he directed it before seeing it, though ultimately that did not take away from my enjoyment of this rare accomplishment.
I say rare because among other things, movie piracy has essentially killed the mid-budget (over $2,000,000) art film. Films like this are way riskier to fund than they were 20 years ago, so they don’t really get made these days. Among other directors, a clear influence on this film is cult-favourite David Lynch, and despite all of his success, even he can’t make the movies he wants to anymore. In that sense, it takes someone with the clout (and probably personal financing) of Gosling to make this odd homage/ throwback flick.
More nightmare than dream, Lost River is filled with striking visuals that will stay with you. If the images and aesthetics of this film were conceived by Gosling then he deserves to be called an artist, but it’s the execution by cinematographer Benoît Debie (Spring Breakers, Enter the Void) that is undeniably skillful. The slick look of the film is complemented perfectly by Johnny Jewel’s heavily composed music.
One thing that actor-turned-directors are often quite good at is casting, and this film is no exception. Christina Hendricks does not get cast nearly enough, and it’s refreshing to see her inhabiting a character so different from Mad Men‘s Joan Holloway. Ben Mendelsohn, who’s always solid and finally getting the recognition he deserves, is great as the creepy club owner (that ‘creepy’ applies to both him and the club). Matt Smith is equally powerful as Bones’ antagonist Bully, a proper psychotic villain. Some familiar faces round out the supporting cast that includes Saoirse Ronan, Eva Mendes and Reda Kateb. There are also a couple sequences featuring non-actors speaking presumably unscripted dialogue. Despite this being eccentric film, these eccentrics feel a little out of place and haphazard in an otherwise formal presentation of Lost River‘s off-kilter reality.
In addition to the obvious auteurs, among them Terrence Malick and the aforementioned Lynch, you can also see the influence of directors Gosling has worked with previously, such as Nicolas Winding Refn and Derek Cianfrance. Not a bad collection of people to emulate. In fact, I prefer Lost River to many of the films it’s borrowing from. Does it make sense? Sometimes. Is it pretentious? Of course it is, but that’s the nature of art films. You’re not there there to be fed a neat story with a beginning, middle and an end. You go for a different kind of experience, and in the case of Lost River, it’s a hauntingly beautiful trip.