Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, Lost River, could charitably be called a paean to his cinematic heroes: David Lynch, Terence Malick, Harmony Korine, Guillermo del Toro and, most of all, his sometime collaborator Nicolas Winding Refn. He borrows themes, tropes, sometimes exact shots from all of them, weaving a lurid, dark, surreal and sometimes thrilling film that never quite manages to stand on its own two feet.
Gosling is interested in the death of the American dream – the titular Lost River is a suburb of Detroit that now resembles a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Roads tail off into reservoirs – entire estates are drowned and deserted; what remains above water is covered in weeds, a town crumbling back into a grim state of nature.
This sad echo of a city is owned by Bully (an excellent turn by Matt Smith), a camp, terrifying thug who maintains his power by cutting off the lips of his rivals with a pair of kitchen scissors. Bully isn’t pleased when Bones – the hero, played by fellow Brit Iain De Caestecker – continues to scavenge copper from the condemned buildings. Meanwhile, the bank wants to repossess the house Bones shares with his mother, Billy (Christina Hendricks) after they were lent money they had no way of repaying before the financial collapse. “America is screwed!” it screams.
To make ends meet, Billy takes a job at a grizzly burlesque show, where the few remaining locals leer at scenes of women being – apparently – mutilated and killed (one such “act” sees Billy cut her face off with a scalpel). It’s all filmed from a voyeuristic distance, often in a neon palette borrowed from Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives.
You have to hand it to Gosling – he has good taste in movies, and a sharp eye for reappropriating images from them. Lost River is an interesting pastiche that hints at real talent, but leaves you with the uneasy feeling that Lynch, Malick, Winding Refn et al should probably be on the receiving end of a royalty cheque.
First published in City A.M.