Lost River

Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut may be a boondoggle but it’s a highly entertaining boondoggle.

United States. Directed by Ryan Gosling, 2014. Starring Christina Hendricks, Saiorse Ronan, Iain de Caestecker, Matt Smith, Eva Mendes, Ben Mendelsohn. 95 minutes.

Ryan Gosling made a movie, and Warner Brothers paid for it. This is what he turned in: a nightmarish portrait of urban decay, reimagining  Detroit as a rural ghost town. Billy (Christina Hendricks), down on her luck and behind on her mortgage, takes a job dancing at a giallo-inspired burlesque theater, run by the sinister Dave (Ben Mendelsohn). Her son Bones (Iain de Caestecker) scours abandoned buildings and steals copper to sell on the black market, running afoul of the sadistic Bully (Matt Smith). Their neighbor Rat (Saiorse Ronan) lives with her elderly grandmother (Barbara Steele) and pet rat Nick. Not too far away lies an underwater town populated by dinosaurs, where streetlamps rise out of the reservoir.

Lost River might not be particularly original. Certainly Gosling has come under fire for cribbing a bit too obviously from the filmmakers he admires: Nicolas Winding Refn, David Lynch, Terence Malick, Dario Argento. I see the Lynch connection in the retro-modern aesthetic, and the score (by Johnny Jewel) makes references to Deep Red. I haven’t seen anything by Refn or Malick, so I can’t speak to what Gosling might have done with those influences.

Certainly Gosling has a long way to go in terms of plot. I found the premise intriguing but the treatment shallow, the structure formless, and the characterization thin. As Clint Worthington points out, Smith plays a bully, so his name is Bully, right? Right. But on the other hand, it makes more sense than Suspiria and is just as pretty to look at. Nothing against Suspiria, of course, which is a goddamned classic.

Anyway, this one isn’t about the story, it’s about the experience. The experience of Ben Mendelsohn singing the classic cowboy song “Cool Water.” The experience of Christina Hendricks performing a burlesque act inspired by Eyes Without a Face (the French movie, not the Billy Idol hit, natch). The experience of Saiorse Ronan performing a fragile ballad on a toy synth in a room lit by pink neon. The experience of Matt Smith riding in the back of a convertible, screaming into a bullhorn: “HEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEY! THIS IS MY MOTHERFUCKING COUNTRY! THIS IS MY MOTHERFUCKING CITY! DON’T LET ME SEE YOUR MOTHERFUCKING FACE AGAAAAAAAAAAAIN!” Try to imagine David Tennant doing that. I bet you can’t.

I enjoyed Lost River. Is it actually any good? If it’s a boondoggle it’s a highly entertaining one. The big studios seem dedicated to churning out product that all pretty much looks and feels the same, so when someone manages to buck the system and produce something personal and singular, you cherish it. Even if it’s as weird as this.

Lost River poster