Lost River – Gosling’s debut is a mess of borrowed ideas that struggles to find a voice

Ryan Gosling has played a silent protector to a mother and son, a playboy taking a divorced Steve Carell under his wing, both the best and worst boyfriends ever, and in Lost River, he finds his turn as a director drawing from several artists. From the very initiation of talk of his directorial debut, people didn’t know the right words to say, and it would appear they still don’t. In this staggeringly beautiful experiment, Gosling attempts his hand at the surrealist tendencies of Lynch and the heavily driven (pun intended) messages of Nicolas Winding Refn – whom he has worked with before in Drive – and ends up with an oddball mess that fails to hit it where it needs to.

Lost River stars Christina Hendricks – Gosling’s co-star from Drive – as a poverty-stricken mother Billy living with her two sons in a wretched worn-down town called Lost River, which parallels a submerged older town. Not able to pay off the loan on her family home, she is driven to work in a horror-burlesque joint, where people engage in grotesque body horror for the entertainment of the wealthy. Her elder son Bones is played by Iain De Caestecker, and goes about stripping used copper from buildings: a role that would most definitely have been played by Gosling in a Nicolas Winding movie. Bones and the entire neighbourhood is bullied by Matt Smith’s character named Bully, a psychotic screamer who goes about in a sweet ride snipping off the lips of people who cross him. There is also a girl named Rat who lives next door to the family, suggestively named so because she owns a rat, whose name is Nick. If I had forgotten to tell you before, this is one weird film.

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If cinema were merely a concoction of images and sounds, then this one would be the very definition of hitting it out of the ballpark. But that isn’t the case, and however beautiful the visuals be, there is a need for coherent substance acting as the glue holding together a good movie. In Lost River, Gosling puts his previous experience and refined taste to good use in creating hauntingly surreal imagery – a burning house, flashes of neon pink streaked against blackness, and haunting theatres – all of which would normally find their home in Twin Peaks, but fails to make certain symbolic sense of them. The allusions and metaphors while vivid are superficial and there is not much to discover by scraping away at the thin surface. Every frame is far too enchanting and more interesting than such substance deserves. While I understand that this is his debut, the film in every scene evokes such curiosity and intrigue which when left unquenched, is frustrating more than anything. This isn’t an opinion of someone who pines for coherent straightforward narratives, in fact I revel in the surreal and ambiguous tendencies of David Lynch, especially the more convoluted ones like Lost Highway. 

I cannot but admire the director for taking on such an ambitious project as his first entry in cinematic creation, and although he didn’t quite hit the right note, the experiment itself is respectable. Gosling has also managed to string along with Hendricks, the composer from Drive, whose haunting synthetic waves I listen to occasionally even today. The soundtrack is perhaps the best virtue of this film, so engrossing and inviting, especially for those of us fans of more surreal fare. The feel and atmosphere that the film creates is a perfect reestablishment of the Lynchian genre in modern filmfare, but it fails on two grounds: a sensible, more-than-paper-thin meaning to work with; and oh, the fact that the term ‘borrow’ cannot be used justifiably here. There is a saying among critics that cinematic innovation and novel ideals are a thing of the past, and that every ‘stride’ taken by directors today finds inspiration or likelihood somewhere else. And that’s alright, as long as you know where to draw the line, there is no fault in drawing ideas from existing classics and adding one’s own creative flair and method to them. Lost River, on the other hand, seems to work on a very vague line between ‘draw inspiration from’ and ‘make a collage of’. A recreation in the negative sense, I fail to discover, as I did with a deeper meaning to this suburbian fantasy, any personal style or vision that permeates through the many layers which scream of Lost Highway, Drive and Only God Forgives. This is the failure of Gosling’s debut; it does nothing toward letting us into the creator’s mind: no distinct voice that at the very least whimpers beneath. What this does succeed in as a debut is the anticipation for the rookie’s next venture, where one can hope he musters the confidence necessary to render the kind of art he indulges in.  

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Lost River attempts to paint an allegory of the broken American dream, of grim poverty stricken households driven to the ground and forced to sell themselves off for the entertainment of the better off. This is where I feel the movie steps into the shoes of Ricky from American Beauty, the strange kid who finds poetry in wretched death and fluttering polythene bags. It does not delve into poverty or the people oppressed amongst the ruins, it takes a more detached approach in indulgence of the downtrodden, the beauty that is ever present in stripped copper, roads run amuck with grime and weeds, and the paint chipping off the walls. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and this distant artistic taste is what prevents the film from being a boring mess. I must admit that every scene managed to hold my attention and lay awake all senses, hoping to latch onto something that would give sense of purpose to the strewn about imagery, but a mess it is nonetheless. The film also jumps back and forth in narrative between fantasy and surreal horror, with talk from Rat about the curse of the forgotten town and a grandmother who refuses to talk. There is a bicycle on fire that casually strolls past Bones, all of which make for an interesting platter with not much nutrition to offer.

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Leaving many a character and subplot to run dry, Lost River stays true to its title by being lost in the beauty of its execution. The character played by Matt Smith particularly seemed to have infinite potential to explore from the very first moment his blood-curdling yells resound in the lost town, which makes it all the more shameful that it wasn’t; halfway through the film, he is reduced to merely the limits drawn by his name – Bully. The protagonist, if he can be called so, is immediately reflective of Ryan Gosling’s own character in the beautiful Drive which managed to find perfect balance between vivid imagery and substance. In fact, most of the characters in Lost River can be traced back quite effortlessly to the creations of earlier masters who Gosling has carefully studied, but has yet to escape from. There were two takeaways from this feature for me: one were the intensely eerie and gore-soaked burlesque scenes, reminiscent of Lynch’s Club Silencio and similar environments; and the second was the unearthly, gaunt antics of Bully which will make sure you never look at the 11th Doctor the same way. Such raw mania is complemented by the foxy theatricalities of Kat, played by Eva Mendes, who shows Billy around the burlesque. In fact, some of the most evocative and compelling images take place within this establishment set up by Billy’s own ‘bully’ Dave, the bank manager. All splashed with an otherworldly hue of mauve and red, performers peel off their faces and trap themselves within glass chambers all while the high-browed crowd take delight in getting bathed in torturous blood.

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For now, there is not much to be said of the director himself from this debut; it reads more as a fever dream conjured by a man high on the cinematic intake of symbolism. It is the effort of a man jumping on feet not his own to reach for something he can’t quite grab. Lost River belongs to that haunted genre of David Lynch and Terence Malick, and even Dario Argento; but while it holds immense intrigue for the viewer, it lacks the confidence that would allow it to soar to the realm of art. In the hands of any of the names I mentioned above, this might be surreal cinema’s new masterpiece. But in the hands of a rookie, it levels down to an uncertain mess of ideas getting lost within themselves, all struggling to escape the surface just as the submerged town in Lost River: a simile more meaningful than most that this film provides. It is most certainly an entertaining watch, albeit a most frustrating one, it does succeed in capturing the audience’s attention only to have no treasure or reason for doing so.

Rating: 5.4/10

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