A town runs through a river, lost in marshy darkness. Overtaken by nature, this place is losing the war against outside forces, just as its sister town lying below the surface of a lake. The above ground survivors are drowning from violence, poverty and abuse with no escape in sight. It’s a curse that keeps them there unless they can finally break it.
Ryan Gosling’s mythical modern day fairy tale “Lost River” is a strange and curious one. Like a Flannery O’Conner southern gothic transported to a decayed and decimated Detroit, the hostile landscape is at once entrancing and horrifying. Gosling creates a landscape that life has abandoned and time has forgotten, and strangeness masks the violence just beneath the surface.
Bones (Iain De Casestecker) is a frustrated boy trying to protect his mother Billy (Christina Hendricks) from the lecherous banker Dave (Ben Mendelsohn) and watch over his toddler-aged brother. Rat (Saoirse Ronan) is the young girl who lives across the street with her grandmother, traumatized by the past. They all live under the terror of Bully (Matt Smith of “Doctor Who” fame), who mangles his enemies with a pair of scissors.
Billy is invited by Dave to work in a horror burlesque-like club where she meets Cat (Eva Mendes), who guides her to ways she can make more money to save her house. But not everything is as it seems, and soon Bones must take a stand and break the town’s curse if he wants to save his loved ones.
“Lost River” is purposefully focused in on Detroit’s decay. Like “It Follows” and “Only Lovers Left Alive,” the setting on which the characters play is a character itself, threatening to swallow the city whole in its darkness, the foreign look of the decay of the American Dream. Bone’s family home is lost to bankers. Rat’s home is ruined by failed promises for a better tomorrow. The scarcity of resources brings power to tyrants like Bully to your front porch. There’s no escape from the American nightmare.
Gosling draws from several directorial influences to create his decaying marshland fairy tale. The most strongly felt is his “Drive” and “Only God Forgives” director, Nicholas Winding Refn. From the bright lights, “Drive” co-star Christina Hendricks, carefully chosen vivid colors and synth soundtrack also featuring “Drive” artists the Chromatics, “Lost River” simply would not exist without Refn’s influence.
But there are also nods in “Lost River” to Stanley Kubrick (“Eyes Wide Shut” and “Barry Lyndon”) and Italian giallo filmmaker Dario Argento (“Suspira”), who had a taste for macabre theatrics and vivid colors. Even the suffocating contraption meant to ensnare Billy is reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s Maria robot from “Metropolis,” another iconic film built on expressionistic foundations. Gosling perhaps lacks the steady control of his camera, but he’s playing with striking symbolism and a colorful palette to make “Lost River” a visually compelling experience.
If he wants to continue down this experimental path, he’s going to have to dive deeper past the obvious references and find his own stylistic flair that will be his own. For now, it’s largely too reminiscent of the masters he’s studied.
The young Canadian director seems fascinated by the concept of decay, the American Dream and how often those two come in sequential order. Gosling is just as fascinated by peeling paint and crumbling architecture of everyone who selects the clickbait ready list of derelict theaters. The characters are simple for the audience to emotionally fill in the blanks as Refn would. That distance is another otherworldly feel in “Lost River” that allows viewers to either get swept away or sink to the bottom. Like Gosling’s last collaboration with Refn, “Only God Forgives,” “Lost River” is not everyone’s ideal swim, but it’s certainly worth the quick dip to check it out.
Fans who caught the U.S. premiere of Ryan Gosling’s “Lost River” at South by Southwest might remember that the cast wasn’t the only one who had a memorable night. One member of the audience took the opportunity to pop a marriage proposal during the post-screening Q & A.
“Lost River” opens in select theaters and VOD April 10.