Lost River (Film Review)

★★★

The last time any of us saw Ryan Gosling’s perfectly chiseled face on the big-screen was when Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives generally upset critics and moviegoers alike in 2013. Finally, after a two-year-long acting hiatus, Gosling is back.

But this time, instead of being under the limelight, he’s calling the shots behind the camera. In his directorial debut Lost River, Gosling takes full creative control and shows that he has a lot of artistic competence by capturing such visually stunning imagery, but he ultimately falls short when trying to juggle all the themes he has to offer.

And he has a lot. While Lost River may seem like a fairly simple film on paper, it ends up emulating those bizarre music videos that don’t really know what to do with themselves. Shot in a broken down Detroit, Michigan, Lost River is set in a fictional city of the same name, which is “cursed” with relentless poverty, burning houses and extremely outlandish cabaret clubs.

Billy (Christina Hendricks), mother of Bones (Iain De Caestecker) and Franky (Landyn Stewart), is in deep financial trouble, and when she’s about to lose the family’s house, she’s given an out by a charismatic — to say the least — Dave (Ben Mendelsohn) in the form of a job as a performer in the world’s most … eccentric nightclub (Lost River’s nightclub is, seriously, the perfect scene for Gosling’s band Dead Man’s Bones, which is comprised of Gosling, aka Baby Goose when onstage, and Zach Shields.)

Once Billy is sucked into the weird, onerous underworld her new job includes, Bones — who normally strips abandoned homes for copper and watches his younger brother — ends up working double time and eventually gets closer to his neighbor, Rat, (Saoirse Ronan) while having to deal with the town’s big bully named Bully, who is played by a very kooky Matt Smith.

While the cast is full of actors with a variety of talents, much of that almost goes to waste, as we don’t get to really know that much about the characters or see them fully develop, minus Billy. Lost River’s antagonists, Bully and Dave, are extremely insane and are barely given any layers for us to fully understand them or what they’re trying to do.

The former is obsessed with copper and cutting off extremities with scissors and the latter is extraordinarily perverted and just as funky as the nightclub he runs — that’s the most you’ll get out of them. Although I doubt this directly correlates to their lack of depth, none of Gosling’s characters even have full names.

What’s to blame is Gosling’s script, which isn’t an absolute catastrophe but a cluttered mishap nonetheless. The now director-screenwriter shows a lot of promise in including glimpses at, what’s supposed to be compelling themes like love, family and desperation, but can’t quite focus on any of them that well.

What he does succeed in doing — with much thanks to inspirations like Nicolas Winding Refn or any other director Gosling’s worked with — is forming exceedingly impressive visuals with creative framing and gorgeous tracking shots; he really does know how to make a good-looking film despite its overwhelmed narrative. Once the camerawork is then combined with Johnny Jewel’s — from the instrumental music group Chromatics — pulsating score, Gosling’s influence from Drive becomes very clear if it wasn’t already. The pitch-perfect combination is also very reminiscent of David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, which is why I think Gosling would excel in horror.

There’s so much potential in Lost River, but Gosling neglects structuring his narrative and doesn’t seem to focus on any of his themes; his fantastical tale then becomes forgotten and adrift like the town it chronicles.

It almost feels unfinished, like it has no real purpose or story to actually tell on top of its good looks. It feels like a montage of superbly shot clips and imagery mashed together with an alluring composition of music to make one weird music video that’s very capable of winning a Grammy.

Without a solid story, Lost River fails to entertain casual moviegoers who aren’t even paying attention to the elements it exceeds in. Ryan Gosling, without a doubt, has a bright future in directing, but this extensive freedom of creativity takes its toll on his directorial debut like the same freedom his unofficial mentor, Nicolas Winding Refn, was given in Only God Forgives.

What cultivated in both accounts was a handsome entry of art-house cinema that’s engulfed in a strong current of bewilderment and obscurity.

Jerome Casio, Film writer at Seroword

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7 Comments

  1. I’ll come to this one with an open mind. It sounds more experimental and ‘artsy’, from your review, but I’m glad to see Gosling spreading his wings. Good review.

  2. Really thoughtful review. I haven’t seen it yet but will surely come across it at some point. I like what you had to say about the script. It’s frustrating as an audience member when you can so clearly see what is lacking, and are left to wonder why the director didn’t pick up on those holes. Do you think he was happy with it how it turned out? Do you think they just get too close to the project?

    • I think any director will nitpick their own work enough to find something that will ultimately make themselves unhappy about how their film turns out. In this case, I think Ryan Gosling did get carried away, maybe even overwhelmed, with all the creative freedom he was given, because Gosling really does have a creative mind — his band Dead Man’s Bones is a prime example of that.

  3. I think any director will nitpick their own work enough to find something that will ultimately make themselves unhappy about how their film turns out. In this case, I think Ryan Gosling did get carried away, maybe even overwhelmed, with all the creative freedom he was given, because Gosling really does have a creative mind — his band Dead Man’s Bones is a prime example of that.

  4. This film was definitely ‘out there’ for me. And I usually like things like this. Just no continuity tho luckily I did get Gosling himself doing a Q & A and interview so I got to at least try and understand where he was coming from. ha!

  5. Great review, Jerome. Lost River is a tough nut to crack. It’s more internal, than anything. You nailed it with the music video aesthetics comment. And I never thought of it, but Gosling’s style is super ripe for horror. Awesome observation, man.

    For me, this beautifully shot film gets drowned by the visuals. I love the Mallick vibe, it’s one of the film’s best qualities; however, the story and characters are lacking. The club was unsettling, making this storyline rather challenging. Hendricks was excellent during those sequences. Terrifying.

    Nice review. I’m glad you highlighted a divisive arthouse film like this.

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