Premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2014, it is easy to understand why the audience were confused and unappreciative. The directorial debut of A-list actor Ryan Gosling, riding the crest of a wave of critical acclaim for his performance in Blue Valentine, his involvement in the uber-cool Drive and the huge commercial success of the romantic comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love, he has forsaken all the obvious choices available to make a deeply personal but also wilfully uncommercial film.
Lost River is drowning, in debt, in despair. Billy (Mad Men‘s Christina Hendricks, radiant as always) is struggling to keep up with the payments on the house she inherited from her late mother, already three months in arrears on what should be her family home, now a derelict ruin. Her infant son Frankie barely walking, her elder son Bones (SHIELD‘s Iain De Caestecker) scavenges the abandoned houses, salvaging copper piping to sell for scrap.
With the neighbourhood is dead, the whole community washed away, the empty houses around them scheduled for demolition, Bones targets the abandoned school and a derelict theatre, dreams dead and crumbling within the peeling walls, but he has competition, the unstable and savage Bully (former Doctor Who Matt Smith in a role filmed immediately after leaving that show; Gosling approached him for the part based on his performance in The Pandorica Opens) who claims the whole territory for himself and who threatens anyone who challenges him.
Bones finds friendship with Rat (The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s Saoirse Ronan), who along with her grandmother (horror queen Barbara Steele) are the only other remaining inhabitants of the derelict suburb. Rat tells Bones how decades before the once prosperous town was flooded to create a new reservoir. “As soon as the last town was drowned, the spell was cast over Lost River. That’s why the whole place feels like it’s underwater.”
Even as his mother accepts an offer of dubious employment suggested to her by the new loan manager at the bank (Animal Kingdom‘s Ben Mendelsohn), Bones determines that he will raise one of the dinosaurs from the flooded Prehistoric Park in order to break the curse of Lost River.
A meditation on destruction and unsustainable living with an ethereal soundtrack of oriental chimes, Lost River is more akin to Koyaanisqatsi than Drive or Only God Forgives, but beneath the decay, the worn out hand-me-downs and the make-do-and-mend necessity as everything fails, there is an underlying warmth, a sense of belonging in the two families and in the girls Billy finds herself working with at the bizarre nightclub which fetishises death in its macabre cabaret.
Contrasting this is the terrifying primal scream of Smith and the unpredictable Mendelsohn, supportive and tender and one moment, slimy and intimidating the next, and there is much of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet in the unnamed nightclub of explicit and unusual tastes which apparently operates on fear of the owner and offers a playlist of fifties crooner covers.
Dying on stage to make a living, Billy falls farther into this bizarre dream world, a surreal nightmare both inexplicable and mesmerising as Bones seeks a happy ending to his bleak fairytale. With subsonic growls on the soundtrack as the beast peers through the silt of the reservoir and repeated images of fire, it is apparent that Gosling has taken lessons in cool and stylish from his two-time director Nicolas Winding Refn and that his rapport with his former leading lady Hendricks is strong.
It is important to remember that underpinning Gosling’s acting success there has always been a maverick streak in his roles, from the Jewish neo-Nazi of The Believer and his Oscar nominated performance as a drug addict teacher in Half Nelson to the unconventional romance of Lars and the Real Girl to the heavyweight political drama of The Ides of March.
Filmed in the abandoned and ruined suburbs of Detroit on a micro budget on a hand held camera in order to bring attention to the plight of that city, Gosling has not only done so but demonstrated that he is as capable behind the camera as in front, a formidable talent who should not be underestimated despite his refusal to pander to conventional expectation.
Lost River is now on limited release and is also available on the BFI Player