Lost River, or as it was previously known as, How to Catch a Monster, is the writing/directing debut of actor, Ryan Gosling. It has gained a bit of notoriety since the less-than-impressive reactions it received at the Cannes Film Festival back in May 2014. In fact, some of the reactions have been so bad that Warner Bros considered selling the distribution rights before deciding late last year to give the film a limited theatrical and VOD release on the same day. Regardless of critical consensus, there is still a curiosity factor when it comes to Ryan Gosling, and his ever increasing amount of interesting choices in projects.
Lost River tells a tale of a single mother, Billy (Christina Hendricks) and her two sons. In an effort to keep her family home, she takes a job offer at a bizarre, murder-fetish nightclub. Meanwhile, her elder son, Bones (Iain De Caestecker), attempts to help his mother, but finds himself in trouble with an evil figure known as Bully (Matt Smith), while also dealing with looking over his baby brother and his fondness for his neighbor Rat (Saoirse Ronan).
Generally whenever an actor takes up the directing mantle for the first time, you expect a certain type of film. Usually it would be a drama of some kind, generally not genre films, and ones that are goldmines for actors wanting meatier roles. You know – the “actors’ movie.” Lost River is not one of those movies. It is clearly an exercise of style, of exploring one’s psyche and creating a sensory experience that are not often found in most mainstream films. It is very obvious within the first few minutes that Ryan Gosling is heavily influenced by the likes of Nicholas Winding Refn, David Lynch, Dario Argento, Mario Bava and Gaspar Noé. He doesn’t hide it either; he proudly wears his influences on his sleeve. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. In fact, the look, the sound, the mood and atmosphere of the film is where everything really works. Benoît Debie is the cinematographer who has done stellar work with Irréversible, Spring Breakers and Enter the Void, and he does not disappoint here. That, combined with Johnny Jewel’s fantastic score does wonders for the atmosphere of the film. This makes it that much more disappointing when you realize that Ryan Gosling’s screenplay doesn’t live up to the visuals.
Aside from some of the inspirations for the look and feel of the film, Gosling also mentioned in interviews that he looked to films like The Secret of NIMH and The Goonies for the storytelling that he is trying to accomplish. I can certainly see elements of those films. One could certainly see aspects of The Goonies in how Bones’ storyline. It’s a romanticized look at one kid’s journey to helping his mother save the house, complete with a girl-next-door and an antagonist literally named “Bully.” It’s very larger than life and certainly fits in that coming-of-age mold with magical realism elements. Billy’s storyline has the Secret of NIMH feel where it involves a mother heading into dark and strange territory to make life for her family better. The problem is the two storylines are never properly developed enough to really leave much of an impact. So, even if the movie is less about plot and more about its themes and ideas, those are also lackluster. It’s not that the film is empty it’s simply that nothing is given enough focus to be cinematically effective. There is hardly enough follow-through with any of the film’s ideas. Is it about the disenchantment of the American dream? Is it a heightened look of the struggles of a single mother? Is it an allegory on lower-class or a simple exercise in mixing Southern Gothic (despite its Detroit setting) with the surreal? The purpose of the narrative never achieves a moment of catharsis or clarity.
The film has a fairly small cast, and everyone does a good job with the material. Christina Hendricks provides for a solid anchor that grounds the film’s surrealism on a human note. Though as soon as he comes on screen, Ben Mendelsohn gives a brilliantly psychotic performance that shows him clearly taking advantage of knowing the type of film he is in. I also commend the use of real residents of the desolate Detroit area that filming took place in. It gave the film and it’s setting a level of authenticity that would have been harder to pull off with regular actors. Granted, this isn’t really the film that you to for the performances, but the actors pull it off when it counts.
Lost River is weird, it’s striking and it will leave images in your mind for days after seeing it, but it’s not a very good movie. I hesitate to call it a failure and I still think there is enough in it to merit a viewing. The film has a lot going for it, especially when it comes to creating a dark, fantastical and moody atmosphere thanks to the outstanding music and cinematography. I just wish Gosling was able to hone in on the many themes he had into something more cohesive with his script. Even if the film is a bit of a mixed bag, I very much respect it. It shows a lot of passion from Ryan Gosling’s part to create something unique, interesting and artistically ambitious. It may not be good, but Gosling has more than earned another chance in a promising future as a director.