The Movie Waffler New Release Review - <i>Lost River</i> | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - Lost River

A single mother and her son struggle to save their home.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Ryan Gosling

Starring: Christina Hendricks, Iain De Caestecker, Matt Smith, Saoirse Ronan, Eva Mendes, Ben Mendelsohn, Barbara Steele

Movies made by actors are often the cinematic equivalent of mix-tapes curated by rock stars; they rarely show much of an appreciation for the medium their creators make their living in. As actors so often judge the quality of a role by how many lines of dialogue it contains, their behind the camera debuts are usually talky, uncinematic affairs. Not so Lost River (which previously went under the more apt tile of How to Catch a Monster), the feature writing and directing debut of Ryan Gosling. Visually it's as confident a debut as those of Charles Laughton (Night of the Hunter) and Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider), and dialogue is kept to a minimum in this ambiguous, dreamlike adult fairy tale.
Single mother of two Billy (Christina Hendricks) is struggling to hang on to her dilapidated Detroit home, passed down by her grandmother. While her neighbors flee the crumbling district, Billy is determined to stay put in the only place she's ever called home. When predatory bank manager Dave (a creepy as ever Ben Mendelsohn) offers her a job in a bizarre nightclub where beautiful women indulge in grand-guignol-esque simulated acts of violence, Billy takes it, desperate for the money to catch up on her bank repayments. To help with the family finances, her teenage son Bones (Iain De Caestecker) scours the ruins of Detroit in search of precious copper piping, and in doing so makes a dangerous enemy in the form of sadistic hoodlum Bully (Matt Smith in a role a million miles away from Doctor Who).
In the last year we've seen a new crop of movies set in the crumbling ruins of post-industrial America. No other city symbolises the effects of the recession era quite like Detroit. The motor city provides an eerie backdrop here, just as it did in It Follows and Only Lovers Left Alive, but with its overgrown weeds and graffiti covered ruins, bears more resemblance to the New Jersey locale of last year's underseen gem Hide Your Smiling Faces. Detroit as seen here is unrecognisable as an urban area, only lamp-posts emerging from flooded lakes like the necks of metallic sea monsters providing clues to its once thriving past. It's an almost post-apocalyptic setting, and Bully, driving around 'his town' blaring his manifesto through a megaphone like the political campaigner Hal Philip Walker of Altman's Nashville, wouldn't appear out of place in the worlds of Escape From New York or Mad Max.
Gosling shoots this world with the eye of a cineaste, aided by the great French cinematographer Benoit Debie, a master when it comes to creating neon soaked tableaux. In the credits, Gosling thanks Nicholas Winding Refn and Derek Cianfrance, and the influence of both directors is clear to see, but we're left in no doubt that the actor is a movie lover who has sought out his own influences. Many will lazily call Lost River 'Lynchian', as though David Lynch were the first director to ever dabble in surrealism and unconventional narratives. The garish use of colour and the casting of Barbara Steele in a cameo suggest that, as with Lynch, Italy's Mario Bava is a major influence.
I'm in a small minority in appreciating Gosling's debut; elsewhere he's taken a critical pounding of the like not seen since Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny. It's certainly flawed, mainly in the acting department, with most of the cast performing as though under the influence of strong sedatives, and the representation of the Billy character borders on misogyny as much as the actions of her predator Dave. But Gosling's film has a tone all of its own, and reminds me of the cult oddities that turned me into a raving cinephile in the early '90s, when Twin Peaks and BBC's Alex-Cox-hosted Moviedrome were required viewing for those seeking unconventional thrills. 
At its worst, Lost River has the texture of a European or Asian auteur struggling to adapt their style to an American setting, but I for one want to see more from a behind the camera Gosling, though he may need to find himself a writing partner.