As an Oscar-nominated A-lister, Ryan Gosling pretty much had carte blanche to make anything he wanted for his first feature, and for all its flaws, Lost River has a go-for-broke swagger about it as the writer/director cobbles together an ode to some of his favorite filmmakers. The works of Nicolas Winding Refn (whose Drive and Only God Forgives he previously starred in), Gaspar Noé and David Lynch all inevitably come to mind over the course of his grimy urban fable, and silly though the story may be, there’s little denying the florid style on display.
Set in a never-dingier Detroit, River tracks Bones (Gosling lookalike Iain De Caestecker) as he scours the abandoned homes in his neighborhood for copper to strip and sell, occasionally running afoul of the tyrannical Bully (Matt Smith, mostly loud) in his efforts to help single mom Billy (Christina Hendricks) support him and his brother. It’s not enough, though, and before long, Billy has reluctantly accepted an offer from loan officer/nightclub owner Dave (Ben Mendelsohn, supremely creepy) to work in his bloody burlesque.
Gosling’s screenplay is a sophomoric re-working of fairy tale tropes through a miserablist lens: Bones is our white knight, out to save distressed damsels Billy and Rat (Saoirse Ronan as the gothic love interest next door) from the clutches of Dave and Bully, respectively. (The character names should tell you a lot; there’s also a mutilated henchman named Face, for gruesomely ironic reasons.) Riddles and repetition abound – there’s much talk of a town curse – and wind-up toy melodies are creakily woven into Johnny Jewel’s otherwise brooding score.
Many actors-turned-directors opt for performance-driven showcases, but Gosling is after the inverse, seemingly calling in favors so his entire ensemble can serve as glorified set dressing first and foremost. With that said, Baby Goose certainly has an eye for arresting imagery: flaming bikes sailing down deserted streets, for example, or streetlights leading right into a manmade lake.
Thanks to Spring Breakers cinematographer Benoît Debie, every shot is cast in a striking neon glow, even when we’re watching beauties like Billy or Cat (Eva Mendes) mock-mutilate themselves before a roaring crowd or any number of derelict buildings burn down in slow motion. Frankly, that blend of ponderousness and peculiarity means that any five minutes of the film would be well-suited to a cool music video, with only the last fifteen minutes or so threatening to become genuinely, giddily unhinged.
As it stands, this is an intriguing enough curio that will nonetheless find some manner of cult following – one suspects that Tumblr will soon be consumed by its GIFs – while also indicating that Gosling’s interests behind the camera will likely be whatever he damn well pleases, for better or worse.
The Upside: Director Ryan Gosling demonstrates a consistently remarkable visual personality to his work.
The Downside: Writer Ryan Gosling provides a half-hearted framework on which to hang said striking images.
On the Side: Warner Bros. is reportedly shopping around the domestic rights to more adventurous distributors, and who can blame them? A 3,000-screen crowd-pleaser, this ain’t.