In the credits to his directorial debut Lost River, Ryan Gosling thanks the likes of Terrence Malick, Nicholas Winding Refn, Derek Cianfrance, David Lynch, Dario Argento and Guillermo del Toro. Some of those he’s worked with, others he’s admired from afar but all influences he wears proudly – too proudly – on his sleeve.
In what plays like a maddening hodgepodge of ideas and styles done better in other films, Lost River focuses on a dreamlike, Detroit-esque wasteland of a city where houses are crumbling, unemployment is high and the seedy underbelly of the city is somehow a viable solution to urgent problems.
Bones (a role Gosling might have played 10 years ago but is instead played by rising Scottish star Iain De Caestecker) spends his days scouring abandoned houses looking for scrap metal to sell; his mother (Christina Hendricks), is a part-time waitress struggling to keep her childhood home from the bank and so agrees to do some questionable things for money, leading her to see a seedier side to her supposedly helpful bank manager (Ben Mendelsohn); “Rat” (Saoirse Ronan) is the girl next door who looks after her grandma; and then there’s Bully (former Doctor Who, Matt Smith), the shaven-headed antagonist of the peace who drives around the city in an open top car proclaiming his dominance.
The trouble with Lost River is that Gosling is never quite sure what type of film he’s trying to make, or rather he wants to make every type of film at once. Is it a post-apocalyptic thriller where gangs run rampant and the hero is supposed to rise up against them? Is it a family drama about a mother trying to keep a roof over their heads? Is it a coming-of-age romance? A stylish crime movie that illuminates a seedy underbelly that would otherwise be hidden were it not for the desolation around the characters? It simply tries to be too many things at once and since Gosling is not (yet?) a strong enough director to make that scattered approach work, it ends up not really working at all.
The film has two real saving graces, the first of which is the lush visual style which marries handheld Malickian ethereality with dark shadows offset by the Drive-esque neon pink lighting that adorns Rat’s attic room or the sordid club in which the film’s most nightmarish, Lynchian scenes take place. The second is the cast who give strong performances and elevate characters that, on the page, are more thinly drawn and frankly rather bewildering archetypes than fully fledged characters. De Caestacker is particularly good as the determined Bones, while Mendelsohn puts in another unsettlingly intense performance to his already overflowing list as the bank manager with a dark heart.
It’s not the terrible film the boos at Cannes would suggest but Gosling’s debut should be filed under “nice try,” functioning like a sort of upmarket student film that has rearranged the furniture in other directors’ houses. There’s an interesting movie in there somewhere that occasionally peeks its head out from behind the oh-so-stylish curtains but is prevented from doing so by an overall self-indulgent, confused and confusing narrative that just doesn’t hang together. Gosling shows a certain kind of promise and I’m sure he’ll make a great movie one day as a director. This just isn’t it.