Gosling Loses His Way in the Willful Abstractness of 'Lost River'

Directed by: Ryan Gosling; Runtime: 95 minutes
Grade: C

Drive and Blue Valentine actor Ryan Gosling can't be accused of not swinging for the fences in his directorial debut, Lost River. A dark allegorical fantasy set in what's rapidly approaching a modern American ghost town, the film explores poverty and monstrous authority in lawless surroundings through vivid surrealist images, suggestive of both Gosling's personal experience with other directors and pronounced artistic influences ranging from Italian Giallo to the work of David Lynch and Terrence Malick. Before attempting something so ambitious and figurative in his first time at bat, Gosling probably should've gotten his bearings behind the camera with more cogent screenwriting than his own. Despite the multihued, intricately-composed language of his visuals, Lost River ends up being a disjointed and hollow patchwork of enigmas that feel borrowed from other works instead of inspired by them, resulting in provocative sensations that service indulgent vignettes instead of a coherent, original fable with something clear to say.

Gosling shoots Lost River through a rundown, textured suburb of Detroit, hammering home the point that the film's eponymous town has been mostly vacated due to harsh conditions and a crumbling financial climate. A few stragglers remain, including a struggling single mother of two, Billy (Christina Hendricks), whose teenage son Bones (Iain De Caestecker) strips dilapidated houses for metal and spends his downtime fixing up a car. Behind on their house payments, Billy's forced to resort to other means of income to appease bank/loan manager Dave (Ben Mendelsohn), guiding her to a bizarre and macabre burlesque that's emerged in the wake of the town's despondence. Bones, in the meantime, dodges the pursuits of the town's dangerously violent Bully (Matt Smith), while developing a relationship with the girl next door (Saoirse Ronan). Through her, Bones learns about the dark "spell" cast over their town, and how he might be able to remove the curse by exploring its submerged secrets.

With Gasper Noe's go-to cinematographer Benoit Debie guiding the point-of-view through imaginative angles and sobering perspectives on conversations, the haunting aesthetic tempo of Lost River can't be stressed enough. Abstractions involving half-underwater streetlamps and a doorway framed by a gargoyle's face form an expressive juxtaposition with weather-beaten houses and stores near collapse and crumbling walls scrawled with graffiti. Gosling plays a lot with moody lighting, too, especially surrounding Billy's new place of employment, namely in the hazy pink basement designed for more lascivious activities that finds a way of being both soothing and unsettling at the same time. It's never dull to look at, whatsoever, and the events that transpire throughout the setting -- peeled flesh, spreading fire, exploration through murky green water -- tap into some rather intuitive and raw cinematic sensations while attempting to blur the line between elevated reality and deceptive fantasy.

Whether it's to emphasize the despondent tone of the town or simply a matter of shallow characterization, the people maneuvering through the ruins of Lost River lack enough intriguing traits to bolster the dramatic dire-straits side of this parable. Lack of talent isn't to blame, either, since Gosling reached into his pool of talented co-stars and almost co-stars from past projects in assembling his cast: Christina Hendricks from Drive; Ben Mendelsohn and Eva Mendes from The Place Beyond the Pines; and Saoirse Ronan before Gosling exited The Lovely Bones. Suitable performances appear left and right as a result, including former Whovian Matt Smith as the intimidating and scissor-happy overlord of the vacant town, but they're ultimately filling out amorphous or on-the-nose characters surrounding Bones' indistinct shell of a personality. Minimalist features may have worked well for the rebels Gosling has played in the past, but they ultimately sink within Agents of SHIELD actor Iain De Caestecker, despite his burdened gazes and soft-spoken tone with Ronan's next-door curio, Rat.

Disappointingly, the narrative flow and dialogue of Lost River tend to be deliberately undefined and sporadic, with little connective tissue between the stories formed around the hopelessness and jeopardy of the abandoned town. Because of that, the film's obscure beauty demands to be processed on a scene-by-scene basis instead of as an interwoven, metaphorical fairytale, shining a light on the lack of innovation and overt admiration for other surrealist filmmakers inside Gosling's whimsical flourishes. He seems to want his 90-minute directorial debut to be his Valhalla Rising, his Blue Velvet, and his Enter the Void all in one shot: an ominous and visceral collage of metaphors and odes to the fall of the American dream, hurled against a canvas in hopes that they'll form an adult half-fantasy. Despite being vibrant and intended for something grander, it ends up being this decadent mess with a self-satisfied otherworldly streak, underscored by a bizarrely triumphant and cataclysmic end that overestimates one's investment in its equilibrium between what's practical and what's of the imagination.

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