Ryan Gosling is hot property these days, yet the fact that he just finished his first feature film would come as a big surprise to most people. Somehow Lost River failed to generate the kind of buzz expected from a film with Gosling's name attached to it. After watching Gosling's firstborn though, it's actually not that hard to see why it failed. Even if it's by far the best film I've seen coming out of America in quite a while, it's not what you call a potential crowd pleaser.
I'm not sure exactly why, but somehow I wasn't too thrilled by the prospect of watching Lost River, which is probably why it ended up on the bottom of the pile. The idea of Gosling directing a film was definitely intriguing enough and the fact that he'd chosen to make a mystery should have piqued my interest. It could have helped had I known Benoît Debie was hired as DP, but I only noticed during the opening credits. And it might be that I expected this film to turn out more like Refn's latest films (while not bad, I think their potential greatly exceeds the final result), but even that feels like reaching.
Long story short, I was wrong to have almost discarded Lost River without giving it a fair chance. Even though the link with Refn's later work is definitely there, Gosling goes his own way while borrowing little bits and pieces from elsewhere. Influences may range from David Lynch to The Wizard of Gore and even something as exotic as Yokohama Shopping Center, but in the end Gosling managed to create his own little universe that stands perfectly well on its own.
Lost River is set against a background of a region in decay. Jobs are scarce, poverty reigns and people are moving to better places. Not so Billy, who tries to cling to the house she occupies with her two kids. When the money finally dries up, she accepts an offer to work in a mysterious bar that does horror-themed performances. Meanwhile, her son Bones is getting into trouble with Bully, the self-appointed ruler of the region who drives around terrorizing people and setting houses on fire. To escape this dreary existence Bones hooks up with Rat, the girl next door, who tells him a legend of an underwater city that resides nearby.
Call me patriotic, but with Benoît Debie (Enter the Void, Calvaire, Spring Breakers) on board visual excellence is pretty much guaranteed. And Debie delivers in spades here. The framing is beautiful, the lighting exquisite and there are some very bold color choices that go a long way in giving the film its otherworldly atmosphere. The darker, gloomier scenes in particular are of stunning beauty, making it that much easier to pull people into the unfolding mystery.
The score (by Johnny Jewel, of Drive fame) has a very similar, ethereal quality. While the 80s influences are unmistakably there, it seems that we are finally moving beyond merely emulating that typical 80s sound and exploring new territory with it. The score has a pretty Lynchian feel to it, constantly moving to the foreground and demanding the audience's attention. In combination with the visuals it makes for a very compelling yet demanding atmosphere that hurls the film forward.
Gosling managed to secure a pretty impressive cast, which may be one of the perks of his current golden status. Christina Hendricks (Mad Men) and Iain De Caestecker (In Fear, Filth) shine as Billy and Bones, Saoirse Ronan, Ben Mendelsohn and Matt Smith act as a more than solid addition to the primary cast. Even Eva Mendes made a worthwhile appearance as leader of the horror troupe, rounding off a pretty interesting cast.
Lost River is a film more about atmosphere and emotion than it is about plot and story. Gosling creates a world that is very much like our own, but still feels very distant and alien. While there's a clear climax, the film doesn't have a real conclusion and many of the film's ideas aren't explored to their fullest. If you're okay with that though, the film offers one of the dreamiest and eeriest film universes I've encountered in quite a while, rising above and beyond as one of the most enveloping mysteries I've seen since Lynch stopped directing feature films.
Lost River's reception was pretty poor, but that was only to be expected. The film's way too strange and peculiar to appeal to a broad audience, yet Gosling's name will attract many people who wouldn't normally sit down to watch a film like this. I went in with low expectations, but I was blown away. Lost River is an audiovisual trip through an intriguing world, it's a feverish nightmare presented as a soothing dream, but above all it's a film from a director who has a voice of his own. Hopefully Lost River won't be the last we hear of Gosling as a director because his potential is seemingly endless.