The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a lost river as “a surface stream that flows into an underground passageway.”
Appropriately, Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut of the same name is all about the lurid surfaces and obscure depths, and cuts a wide and muddy channel across the cinematic landscape.
Set in an otherworldly settlement of indeterminate size – the film was shot in Detroit but has a rural feel to it – Lost River opens with a montage of semi-urban decay as a red-headed infant plays in the long grass to the tune of 1920s swing. As opening scenes go, it’s certainly hip, chic, and knowing: equal parts David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch, as is the premise.
The cryptically named Bones (Iain De Caestecker) spends his day hacking into the walls of abandoned houses, salvaging pipe, trying to work together the money to repair his car and get his mother and brother out of this city. His mother Billy (Christina Hendricks), however, is determined to hold onto the house her sons grew up in, even if it means going to work for a man like Dave (Ben Mendelsohn), ostensibly her bank manager.
Dave’s main place of business is a neon-lit club whose entrance is the leering mouth of a demon, where the playful Cat (Eva Mendes, Gosling’s own paramour) acts out lurid snuff scenarios for a baying, gore-soaked audience. Dave even performs self-indulgent karaoke under a crimson light; halfway between Blue Velvet and Only God Forgives, you might as well call it Red Velvet. It’s all empty calories.
Meanwhile, the empty streets are patrolled by Bully (Matt Smith), a ranting, shave-headed thug in a lamé jacket, announcing his superiority from a velvet-upholstered throne in the back of ’66 Cadillac Eldorado. A one-dimensional psycho, he’s still a more interesting figure than Caestecker’s earnest, sadly charisma-less Bones, if only due to Smith’s acromegalous intensity.
Bones’ love interest, which comes in the form of Saoirse Ronan’s Rat – yes, she has a pet rat – helps to illuminate Lost River’s intended mythic substructure: the damsel in distress, the knight errant, the quest to break the evil spell. Gosling has an eye for the striking image, like the streetlights projecting from an overgrown field or a bicycle in motion on fire, but they never feel like they’re in service of anything.
For instance, Billy’s “act” at the club involves being encased in a transparent plastic mould, visible but unreachable, a vague comment, perhaps, on the objectification of women which feels like it comes from a different style of film. The performances are serviceable but all-too familiar, never rising above or elevating the pulp of Gosling’s screenplay.
What Lost River gives us is Hendricks, tough, uncompromising, a la Mad Men; Mendelssohn in his seedy crime thriller persona; Ronan as lovely companion as in Grand Budapest Hotel; but there’s very little that’s unique, original, very little it can truly call its own. The film’s ambition is as scattered as its influences, from the Giallo flicks of ’60s Italy – former horror starlet Barbara Steele appears as a silent, Miss Havisham-like figure – to repeat Gosling collaborator Nicholas Winding Refn.
Its characters are ciphers, lacking a sense of past or future, and, as such, impossible to care about. Johnny Jewel’s score is both driving and impressionist, Benoît Debie’s cinematography is sharp and surreal, but the film lacks the thematic undercurrents to make something more than ambience of them.
With only flashes of genuine insight amidst the murkiness – a shot in the opening montage of a flaming building intriguingly suggests Bones and Co. are in a world that’s slowly burning up with them inside – Lost River just feels submerged.