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April 10, 2015
This time around, sadly, I didn’t manage to score a press slot with first time writer-director Ryan Gosling but watching interviews and listening to him talk about his filmmaking debut Lost River, only confirmed my first impression upon seeing the film at last month’s press screening: the talented actor shows a lot of potential behind the camera and those who booed the film at its Cannes premiere last year and called him pretentious are probably just bitterly jealous that an Oscar-nominated sex symbol may be as good a filmmaker as he is a thespian.
The Canadian sensation who came out of Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club and still talks about it with gratitude, has nothing but humility and enthusiasm to offer when addressing this filmmaking experience, underlining how he didn’t approach this project as necessarily an art-house film. He just wanted to tell this specific story he’d been mulling over for years and thought that the style and tone he used were the ones such story. I understand that as much as most critics’ perplexed perception of the film but like others have eloquently put it already, if this had been directed by an unknown first timer rather than Ryan Gosling, probably the general reaction would’ve been more authentic.
Initially called ‘How To Catch A Monster’ (intriguing but probably too long a title), Lost River is, in the words of his maker, a dark realistic fairy tale about a family trying to survive in a city in ruin. Inspired by and filmed in the decadent side of Detroit, though not officially set there, the film follows Billy (Christina Hendricks), a single mother of two, teenage son Bones (Iain De Caestecker) and little boy Franky (newcomer Landyn Stewart) trying to keep their house and their family together in a financial crisis that’s literally destroying their neighborhood. Whilst Bones wanders the devastated surroundings to collect metallic scraps he can sell, Billy accepts a disturbing job at a macabre underworld club run by the exotic and enigmatic Cat (Eva Mendes) and based on the Grand Guignol and similar clubs of early 1900s Paris where they used to stage horror shows with people gruesomely killed on stage in quite realistic (albeit fake) fashion.
Both mother and son have antagonistic forces to face whilst trying to survive and take care of little Franky. Bones has to deal with Bully (a vicious Matt Smith), a mercilessly violent thug who ‘owns’ the neighborhood and patrols it all day with his henchman. Billy instead has to keep dodging the harassing advances of Dave (Ben Mendelsohn), the creepy man who gave her the creepy job. However, if one can cope with pretending to peel off their face in front of a live audience, what about being locked inside a transparent coffin in a dungeon where people are allowed to do anything in front of you? Luckily, both mother and son (more or less) find solace in a potential love interest as Billy befriends the cab driver (Reda Kateb) who usually drives her to work at night whilst Bones hangs out with their gorgeous neighbor Rat (Saoirse Ronan), an emo-looking girl, who sings melancholic ballads in her bedroom at night, has a pet rat and takes care of her dementia-affected grandmother.
The film’s title refers to a mysterious road that leads into a reservoir where a city lays submerged by a river, as the derelict light poles sticking out of the water suggest (in a crafty low budget way). This imagery has been Gosling’s obsession since he was a child and his mother told him how the city he grew up in was part of ‘The Seaway Project’ that created waterway for ships to pass through, flooding several towns and villages in order to accomplish that. When Rat tells Bones that the old settlers have cast a spell on their city because of what the Seaway Project did to them, hence why their city is in ruin, Bones doesn’t believe her at first but takes a lot of interest in exploring the submerged ghost town and eventually begins to open his mind to Rat’s tale.
Whether this magic is real or not, the film doesn’t spell it out (pun unintended) but that’s exactly what defines it. Lost River is an absorbing, hypnotic descent into a dark urban fairy tale with a dream-like vision of reality, supported by a tremendous cast and made with personality. Gosling has quoted a couple of films that affected his imagination as a child, The Goonies (1985) and the animated (and underrated) The Secret Of NIMH (1982) and surely you can see their influence in the family survival themes, the fairy tale mood and the dark underworld.
Having worked with some wonderful filmmakers like Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond The Pines) and Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives), it’s undeniable that Gosling (willingly or subconsciously) has borrowed from them but he’s done so in reverential fashion and to his own advantage, as a means to fine-tune and establish his own promising filmmaking voice. He has found the perfect collaborator in director of photography Benoît Debie (Enter The Void, Irreversible, Spring Breakers) who tastefully captures the dark, bizarre, fable-like atmosphere of the story and creates such a vivid world on screen, having shot most of the film on 35mm film, using natural light like a painter.
The cast (of friends for the most part) is also well chosen and undoubtedly makes the difference in bringing Gosling’s vision to life. It’s wonderful to see an underrated performer like Christina Hendricks more often on the silver screen now that Mad Men is almost over. Saoirse Ronan (Atonement) keeps piling up great performances left and right whilst Iain De Caestecker is one of the most exciting young newcomers in years as his recently-found success in TV series Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. corroborates. But let’s not forget Ben Mendelsohn (Starred Up) whose nuanced villainous turns have made him of the most solid character-actors working today.
Despite wearing thin on character development and losing a bit of momentum along the way, Lost River is an impressive filmmaking debut from one of the best actors of our time. It may strike as artsy for its own sake but it actually shows passion, confidence and inspired vision. Gosling provides some arresting imagery with scenes like Bones’ nightly boat excursion in the river where suddenly the pitch black is broken by the semi-submerged light poles being (inexplicably) turned on. The daylight scenes remind of the similar tone and setting of Beasts Of The Southern Wild (2012) whilst when darkness falls (and sticks around for most of the running time) the sense of mysterious, dangerous and picturesque weirdness feels quite David Lynch-like. One thing is certain, this is one of the most bizarre and most gorgeously shot films you’ll see this year!
Lost River is available on DVD from June 1st
Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor