If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Ryan Gosling is aiming to become the best friend of most every notable American auteur working today with his directorial debut. There are so many influences here that Gosling’s own voice is lost. However, based on the evidence in Lost River, he may not have had much of a voice to begin with.”
Gosling appears to be taking the James Franco approach with Lost River, taking on directing, writing and producing duties. He’s a jack of all trades, but master of relatively few. Some leeway has to be allowed for a debut, but the stylish confidence Gosling brings to the visuals deserves far better material.
The basic plot sees mother-of-two Billy (Christina Hendricks) struggling to meet her mortgage repayments and raise her sons. The film surrounds the family in crumbling suburban misery, with credits accompanied by shots of decrepit abandoned homes that look like Harmony Korine offcuts. The comparison to Korine is reinforced by Gosling’s choice of Spring Breakers DoP Benoît Debie. To be fair, the film boasts a certain formal elegance. When not embracing clammy grunge, the film glows in reds and purples, an undoubted hangover of previous Gosling collaborator Nicolas Winding Refn. At this rate, this review might just devolve to a list of names Gosling checks off his homage list.
At the suggestion of her mortgage advisor Dave, Billy takes a job at Dave’s niche burlesque club. A banker owning a snuff joint is about as subtle as Gosling gets when it comes to commentary. Dave is played by Ben Mendelsohn, who launches into this Frank Booth rip-off role with glee. It’s not subtle, but little in Lost River is. Dave’s club offers punters the chance to watch women be murdered on stage. Dave and his punters get their kicks from watching the likes of Hendricks and Eva Mendes’ Cat cut themselves to shreds onstage in much the same way as Frank Booth enjoyed Dean Stockwell performing ‘In Dreams’.
Speaking of ‘In Dreams’, another touching point for Gosling is Neil Jordan’s 1999 film of the same name. The similarities in setting are hard to overlook, as both involve myths surrounding submerged towns and the hunt for answers therein. Lost River’s primary narrative drive involves Billy’s son Bones (Iain De Caestecker) looking for a way out of his family’s crises. With the assistance of Saoirse Ronan’s girl-next-door Rat (so-called because she owns a pet rat. How droll.), Bones sets off to find the answer in the old town of Lost River in the nearby lake. The characters are desperate, but the characterisations are even more so. Bones and Rat are largely uninteresting, while Matt Smith’s town bully is so one-dimensional as to be named ‘Bully’. The actors have nothing to work with, though they try their best. The sight of Mendelsohn dancing is one of the scariest sights in any film this year, but Dennis Hopper exerted as much menace with less effort.
All of Lost River’s problems can be traced back to Gosling’s script, a hodge-podge of realist Americana, hopeful fantasy and tame giallo. There are too many films bearing down on Lost River, as Gosling attempts to do justice to all his favourite styles and directors with reckless abandon. This also means shoehorning in Reda Kateb’s cab driver and Rat’s grandma, played by B-movie veteran Barbara Steele, doubtlessly another self-aware homage. Gosling cannot draw the line between homage and downright theft, leaving Lost River adrift on its own sense of self-importance. Gosling has enough of an eye to suggest he might be worth a punt on a better script, but there’s little behind Lost River‘s neon glow but air.