Lost River Review (2015) | Can't Stop the Movies
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Lost River (2015)

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Bones lives with his little brother and their mother Billy in the half-flooded town of Lost River, a scene of urban blight and decay ruled over by the sadistic Bully. When Billy must go to work in a mysterious underworld cabaret, Bones and his neighbor Rat cross paths with Bully while attempting to break a curse that has a hold on the town. Ryan Gosling's debut film, Lost River is part fairy tale, part impressionistic nightmare about our ties to the past.

Lost River House on FireKyle Like Banner

Lost River opens with a quick, chaotic montage of chalk-scribbled triple-Xs and flashes of neon signs, and its title credits are in a font that seems pulled from the front of a dime-store novel. As the credits roll, we're treated to signs of Americana—small-town houses spread far enough out to still have lawns, a young man working on restoring an old beater in the front yard—intercut with images of empty and decaying buildings, the interiors bled of color and often framed to suggest they're situated at the bottom of lengthy caverns. There's a slow, craning shot that starts on some holes broken into the roof of a theater and then slides down with the light until it's looking head-on at the ruined stage.

This shot is loaded with significance not only for how it signals the film's preoccupation with a past it can't ever quite evoke, but also for how it (perhaps unintentionally) embodies first-time director Ryan Gosling's strengths. Lost River is saturated with a feeling of dark fantasy and fairy tale, much of which comes from the raw strength of the images as signifiers dislocated from the story. Film is a visual medium, and here Gosling is pushing against our need to establish a context for imagery outside its immediate capability to evoke.

Lost River Grandma's House

What's evoked is primarily a loss of history. As we meet young Bones (Iain De Caestecker), the older of Billy's (Christina Hendricks) two sons, he's foraging in abandoned buildings for copper piping he can trade for car parts at the local salvage yard. One of the family's only two remaining neighbors is “heading south,” his belongings loaded into the back of a moving truck, and Billy is struggling to pull together mortgage payments to keep their house. “Do you mind if I ask why? Why not head south?” asks a sleazy banker played by Ben Mendelsohn. Billy replies simply, “because I have two boys and that is our home.”

Obviously a stand-in for the blighted urban landscapes of Detroit, the partially underwater city of Lost River consists of long stretches of industrial decay patrolled by a self-appointed tyrant who (maybe too appropriately) goes by the name Bully. Bully rides down abandoned streets in an easy chair bolted to the back of an old convertible, using a PA system to project declarations of his ownership (“This is my city—I don't want to see your motherfucking faces”). Eventually Bones and his neighbor Rat (Saoirse Ronan) will cross paths with Bully, while Billy reluctantly goes to work for Mendelsohn's character in an eerie cabaret specializing in Grand Guignol stage productions.

There is a lot going on here, and the stronger fairy tale elements don't always blend with the more grounded allegory to Detroit's current crisis—particularly a subplot about a curse tracing back to when Lost River was first flooded, which can only be broken by bringing an artifact from the underwater portion of the city back to the surface. Blasted as a failure and a mess on its initial (very limited) release, Lost River isn't without its share of significant problems, the main one of which is that Gosling puts us right into the middle of things from the start without a clear sense of what type of story we're in for. It's not that these characters or situations are especially complex or foreign—they're not—but the movie launches into its two main stories abruptly, and as a result we feel like we've missed something. He doesn't go far enough into the aesthetics of fairy tale from the start, and that creates a distraction that has us stumbling into the first act of the movie.

Ben Mendelsohn Dancing - Lost River

Additionally, certain relationships are defined in broad, sudden strokes the likes of which work when dealing with fairy tale archetypes but here can seem rushed and undeveloped for no good reason. That's a larger part of the film as well—all of these characters are defined the second they walk onscreen, for better or worse. One of the “betters” is Ben Mendolsohn, with whom you can't do better if you're looking for a sleazy, slimy schemer with hints of something deeper (but not necessarily redeeming) under the surface. Here he channels a version of Dennis Hopper's Frank Booth on lithium—he's a bizarre wolf, a predator who seems bored with his mid-level hustles.

Gosling's work with Nicholas Winding Refn exercises an obvious influence here. Many of the shots are drenched in neon reds and blues, broken in and out of with flaring lights and soft focus, and there's no shortage of throbbing synth on the soundtrack. It would be easy to criticize Gosling for being entirely derivative of Refn—certainly the influence is there, and unmistakeable, but Lost River dwells in its surreal moments whereas Refn wants to construct a kind of total image. From the pop-art Vikings in Valhalla Rising (still my favorite of his films) to nearly any frame of Drive (which is like 80s movie nostalgia boiled down to its purest elements), Refn strives to create in each frame an absolute, even if it's just an absolute representation of style. Gosling's best images embrace the same aesthetic but without the certainty—they seem pulled from the deep-sleep dreams of Refn's films.

It's fitting then that sometimes Lost River has the feeling of a dream—you understand what's happening, who the characters are, and their objectives, but not because the movie has explicitly told you. When operating at his best, Gosling creates pure nightmare fuel—impressionistic images that localize current fears about urban decay in characters and settings that seem to inhabit a dark mirror world opposite our own. (Here I submit a scene where a character peels her own face off onstage, or one of Bully's lackeys, who walks around with a permanent sneer after having his lips cut off with scissors.)

Christina Hendricks - Lost River

At other moments, the film is still anchored a bit too tightly to a conventional story structure. If impressionism and evocation absent of excessive narrative detail is what he was going for here (and I can't see how it's not), then Gosling was right to define the characters' relationships and conflicts in single broad strokes. But I wish he would have broken even more definitively from some of the narrative structures he borrows.

As in fairy tales, much of the violence—overt or otherwise—is sexualized and directed at the two female characters, but I'm not sure it needs to be for this story. I could also have stood to see Christina Hendricks' character with a little more agency by the end of the film. She's an actress who brings tremendous force to any role she's in, and there's no reason for Gosling (who also served as screenwriter) not to let her function as a strong matriarch here. And there's a final scene involving a barely introduced character sweeping in for a pseudo-rescue that plays as silly and unnecessary.

But movies aren't always necessarily just about the immediate experience—some are more about how they shift and build in your mind after the fact. I probably won't watch Lost River again anytime soon, but I'll definitely be in line day one when Gosling's next movie is released. There are single frames here that carry more impact and suggestion of mythology than many films can manage at all, and in that way, Lost River may be a small miracle.

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Lost River Movie PosterLost River (2015)

Written and directed by Ryan Gosling.
Starring Christina Hendricks, Iain De Caestecker, Saoirse Ronan and Ben Mendelsohn.

Posted by Kyle Miner

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