If indeed David Lynch does not end up directing the Twin Peaks revival, Showtime might want to give Ryan Gosling a call. Based on Lost River, his first effort behind the camera, Gosling’s visual style has been strongly influenced by Lynch’s own eye for the surreal and bizarre amidst small town landscapes. Gosling brings us a parade of strange and often arresting images, and you can probably count Nicolas Winding Refn (who has employed Gosling as an actor twice now) among his directorial touchstones as well.
It’s a pity that Gosling is unable to provide much else. Lost River, which he also wrote, is simply a mess: Gosling’s rambling, incoherent script may nod in the direction of Terrence Malick’s indirect, collage-like approach toward narrative as well as Lynch again with his own elliptical storytelling, but those two at their best make all their diffuse narrative strands eventually click into place (well, most of the time anyway). Gosling tries hard but he cannot pull the different threads of his story together and weave them into anything resembling an articulate story with something to say.
The plot, as it is, centers on Billy (Christina Hendricks of Mad Men), a single mother with two sons — a toddler and a teen — who is trying to hold onto her house in the decaying, nearly empty town of Lost River, which we gather has been decimated by economic downturn. To make ends meet, she finds work through a local, decidedly malevolent banker (Ben Mendelsohn), who gets her a job in a macabre club that specializes in faked onstage murders. Meanwhile, her older son Bones (Iain De Caestaecker, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) finds scraps of copper wire to sell, dodges a local thug (Matt Smith, Doctor Who), romances a neighbor (Saoirse Ronan) and eventually stumbles upon an abandoned town submerged in a lake next to Lost River.
Gosling is clearly interested in saying something about the death of the American Dream, and the bleak, boarded-up and crumbling buildings scattered through Lost River certainly look like parts of this country in the wake of the 2008 Great Recession. Billy’s plight is meant to be symbolic of that of many parents, forced to seek employment under the thumb of an evil corporate master and subject to his will. But the film’s general sense of aimlessness and fuzzy symbolism, along with slack pacing and inconsistent performances (Hendricks is strong and dignified in an underwritten role, while De Caestaecker lacks presence and Smith is just bad), gum up the works.
What we’re left with is a languid, heavy-handed semi-allegory shot in colors that would make Mario Bava proud but leaving its not-inconsiderable cast adrift (speaking of Bava, there’s a cameo from legendary ‘60s horror queen Barbara Steele that’s as brief as it is incomprehensible). There is no real empathy generated for the characters, who seem less like real people and more like hollow figurines for Gosling to move around his hellish playground. All Gosling seems interested in doing is telegraphing his message about the poor being smashed down by the wealthy, regardless of any context or larger motivations for any of Lost River’s inhabitants.
Images like flames in a burning building raging against an ink-black night or the drowned city’s streetlights jutting out of the water and suddenly flickering to life are striking, as is Johnny Jewel’s score and some of the cross-cutting toward the film’s conclusion, which creates a decent amount of tension that the story just doesn’t earn. The finale is just as mystifying as the rest of the film, which just comes to a halt like a stalled car instead of delivering the emotional crescendo that the filmmaker probably thought he was manufacturing.
On the other hand, this is a first film and an ambitious one, even if it fails. It’s evident that Gosling has learned something about making movies from his pal Refn (who also doesn’t always deliver the emotional or storytelling goods either — here’s looking at you, Only God Forgives) and it’s quite possible that the actor will only hone and improve his directorial chops. But he should perhaps give himself a break and direct something written by someone else next time, because even if he chooses to pursue a less straightforward narrative style, that still requires a consistency of tone and structure that seems beyond his grasp at the moment. Lost River may not be the debut he hoped for, but we’ll venture to say that Gosling is not a lost cause as a director.
Lost River is out in theaters and on VOD now.