Director: Ryan Gosling
Cast: Christina Hendricks, Iain De Caestecker, Saorise Ronan, Matt Smith, Ben Mendelsohn, Eva Mendes, Barbara Steele
Plot: A mother (Hendricks) and her son (De Caestecker) are some of the few remaining locals of a dying village, targeted by a bank.
I have been quietly anticipating Lost River. I wouldn’t quite go as far as saying I was looking forward to it, because after Only God Forgives, I was only too aware of the potential disaster that was probably waiting for me in this film. It isn’t as though I am not able to enjoy and respect arthouse films, because Under the Skin was one of the most thought-provoking pieces of 2014, but Ryan Gosling has been mentored by Nicolas Winding Refn, who isn’t known for letting his audience keep up with his volatile thought process. Lost River hits a pleasant milieu in the weirdness factor. It is nowhere near as brilliant as Under the Skin, but it also isn’t a train wreck like Only God Forgives.
It could still be argued to be guilty of the same problems. Perhaps my forgiveness comes from the fact I expected Gosling to almost mimic Only God Forgives. While there are clear influences from his other films (the cast of Place Beyond the Pines, the neon lighting of Drive), the tone of Only God Forgives remains the driving force behind this project. There is the same sense of drifting through the story, giving the audience strands of ideas to grasp onto, but overall, never quite letting us get a full picture of the story or universe. This is the narrative as far as we can perceive. Lost River is either a specific town or a term used for a washed up collection of houses that the economy has completely given up on. A greedy bank manager wants to simply tear the place down and be done with it, but a determined mother is desperate to keep her family home intact. The story then fragments into two, Christina Hendricks’ mother getting a job at a strip club that would have 50 Shades of Grey screaming the safe word and her son, Iain De Caestecker, mining copper with the loveable neighbour in a street, ‘owned’ by hoodlum, Bully. There are Macguffins (a flooded rollercoaster park), and motives, like any story, but Gosling never quite focuses in on them. Sometimes, this is even more frustrating than Only God Forgives. By thirty minutes in, we had distanced ourselves from that travesty and just began mocking it from afar. With Lost River, we can clearly see an interesting fable buried underneath the dream-like artistic tone, which we cannot help but wish were being told with a more coherent narrative.
However, the blessing in disguise is that Gosling does give us moments that entertain. While Lost River never quite satisfies (not a criticism; this is a film that doesn’t necessarily want or need to satisfy), it does have stunning visuals that act as quick pay-offs along the journey. Gosling clearly has a flair for visuals and is a pretty good director. Certain moments are amazingly shot and when you lose track of the narrative, simply lean back and appreciate what you are looking at. Christina Hendricks peeling off her face in a torture-themed strip club will haunt many a person. Matt Smith disturbingly telling Saorise Ronan how much he wants to touch her ‘rat’ is skin-crawling. The lighting and frames are precisely chosen, conjuring up the perfect atmosphere. Exposition is handled well too. The relationship between Bones and Rat, the couple we invest most of our emotion in, is moulded through a montage where Gosling cherry-picks moments from a conversation over the course of an evening. We learn only what we need to and it never loses sight of the dream-like tone he wants. You kind of wish this easy-going story-telling was being used in more mainstream cinema. The biggest surprise on offer here was how close Lost River gets to horror. It becomes horror without the actual monster or thing to be afraid of. We just get this weird mix of the terrifying atmosphere that comes with the genre. The strip club scenes are mostly likely going to be viewed through your fingers. Bully’s single henchman is a monstrous sight, his lips cut from his face. The soundtrack plunges Lost River into this uncomfortable territory. Again, you want Gosling to turn his hand to actual horror movie making, because he would be really good at it.
At the very least, come for the cast. This is the kind of film where most performances don’t really work, because it is so odd, no actor can really grasp any sort of role out of it. However, perhaps this is where a director who comes from acting, rather than behind the camera, comes in handy. Gosling gives his entire cast meaty parts to play with. Hendricks is asked to be a blank space, but is somehow endlessly captivating, her pale-face and haunting eyes riveting. Mendelsohn does the villainy stuff as only he can, but with an added slice of surrealism, helping the actor break new ground. Saorise Ronan hardly has a character to begin with, yet she somehow lifts the material, that innocent victim trapped in a world of misery. And then there is Matt Smith. What a transformation! He is unrecognisable here, no trace of his original accent to be found in his dialogue, so fluent in the American tongue. He is a dastardly villain, a monster straight out of a Mad Max movie. He is despicable, yet so entertaining that he livens the movie up whenever he is on-screen. This is worlds away from Doctor Who and introduces the actor as someone who can break away from the cult TV show without any trace of his former character hanging around.
Final Verdict: Lost River is definitely the film that Gosling wanted to make, but at the very least, there is enough to entertain the audience here.