Perhaps it had something to do with how long the queue was – even by Cannes’ standards – to get into the theater for the premiere of ‘Lost River’. Maybe fatigue brings out the harshest critic in you, or perhaps film critics aren’t ready to forgive someone who is as talented as he is handsome, and allowed the freedom to do anything he wishes in the movie world today, but the response of the public jury of Twitter to Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut was an almost unanimous slamming.
In deed, ‘Lost River’ is the cinematic epitome of the triumph of style over substance and beyond any doubt a pastiche of different influences and directors Gosling either likes or has worked with. His debut proves that he is more than just an imitator. Instead, he is capable of transforming his cinematic cut and paste into a charming collage, which hints at greater ideas.
More than anything the film’s atmosphere is reminiscent of David Lynch’s work, and especially of ‘Blue Velvet’, in the way it immerses you in the “secret life” of the suburbs and explores the threatening worlds that seem to exist next to the “normal” one of “peace-loving” folks. In ‘Lost River’, Iain De Caestecker (who probably not coincidentally looks like Gosling) reminds us of Laura Dern. He plays Bones, a boy growing up in a town that is slowly dying that everyone seems to be abandoning.
He lives there because his mother Billy (played by Christina Hendricks) and his younger brother (Landyn Stewart) are still bound to their home and because he doesn’t have enough money to repair his old car, which someday will drive him far away. To make ends meet, he breaks into abandoned buildings in his ghost town and steels piping to sell as scrap metal. When Bully, a malicious madman that has declared the deserted city his kingdom, sets his sights on him, Bones will suddenly find himself in danger.
Billy’s fate is similar. While trying to find a way to make her mortgage payment she receives a job offer from her banker (Ben Mendelsohn) in a club that looks like a bloody burlesque nightmare of a New Orleans magician (or like a video for Gosling’s band Dead Man’s Bones). When the club’s main attraction Eva Mendes gives Billy a tour of the premises, she discovers an even stranger and more mysterious room.
Just when everything seems to be stuck in a dark maelstrom, Bones befriends the girl who lives next door (Saoirse Ronan) and her grandmother (Barbara Steele) who likes to watch video recordings of happier times and will discover a road that leads to a town buried under the water where a reservoir has been built.
From the beginning of the film, when Bones’ younger brother, a curious redhead opens the door of their derelict house to wander the streets full of cracked and crumbling empty houses, Gosling tries to create a dreamy atmosphere, of a world in limbo inhabited by ghost-like figures.
There are many impressive stylized scenes, ruin porn, wall to wall music and songs sung by the actors. There are also moments of intense and even theatrical violence, references to David Lynch, Nicolas Winding Refn and Gaspar Noé (one scene looks straight out of ‘Irreversible’), to horror films, experimental cinema, teenage flicks and Southern Gothic films. You can scratch at the surface of ‘Lost River’ and pick out its influences for hours.
It makes you wonder what is “true” Ryan Gosling and why he even made this film. What difference does it make? At the bottom of this river there seem to be sediments of a pop culture Gosling has gladly swum in from an early age. ‘Lost River’ can be viewed as a strange, abstract, disfigured self-portrait, an album or compendium of things that interest and move him. All this is offered generously as if it is a way for Gosling to re-introduce himself, all over again. And even if there isn’t much here that’s original or even necessary, Gosling has managed to present it in a sincere, attractive and remarkable way.