“Here in my deep purple dream”
You cannot watch Ryan Gosling‘s directorial debut Lost River without recalling the divisive surrealism of Only God Forgives. He’s the first to admit how much of an influence Nicolas Winding Refn was, pitting the Dane’s heightened realities against the emotive authenticity of another favorite collaborator in Derek Cianfrance. Gosling places himself somewhere in the middle of their two disparate sensibilities and while I get what he’s saying, the apple falls much closer to Refn’s tree. Unsurprisingly booed out of Cannes as it earned the wrath of a critical sphere quick to make it a laughing stock of misguided vision and talent, I find it difficult to dismiss as much as it is to applaud. Gosling’s attempt at a darkly told contemporary fairy tale steeped in 80s fantasy sensibilities isn’t perfect, but it is extremely bold.
If I were to liken his film to anything I’d go back to 2003 and the Polish Brothers‘ Northfork in both tone and subject matter. What we see are real people and a real world, but everything is skewed just left of center for an otherworldly feel toeing the line between dream and nightmare. Lost River definitely pulls towards the latter with its highly sexualized violence and ferocious king of the jungle (Matt Smith‘s Bully), but there is also a sense of hope and rebirth left buried beneath the ashes of its titular town engulfed in flame. With everyone taking a buy-out and leaving for the promise of prosperity in the south, Billy (Christina Hendricks) and her sons Bones (Iain De Caestecker) and Franky (Landyn Stewart) seek to stay put. Doing so means a willful surrender to fate.
Billy and Bones become the epitome of self-sacrifice, each putting themselves in the crosshairs for pain. Billy believes that quitting her waitressing job at the local strip club to blindly enter the mysterious pop-up hotspot owned by a visiting bank manager just arrived to push stragglers out (Ben Mendelsohn‘s Dave) is the best thing for them to earn the money necessary to pay off back rent. Bones is fed up with Bully and the fear his scissor happy fingers induce throughout town, for all intents and purposes signing his death warrant by stealing copper pipes on the feral psychopath’s land to turn profit. They each perform to get out of their financial hole and breathe easy yet end up pursued for their trouble. Sometimes tragedy is the blessing in disguise to finally accept escape is the only option.
Besides these two leads, every other character is a caricature or fantastical creature bringing joy or terror. Franky appears developmentally challenged and in turn proves a warm heart at the center to motivate his mother and brother to survive Lost River. Their neighbor Rat (Saoirse Ronan) is a peculiar girl and object of Bones’ affections that cannot leave because her mute grandmother (Barbara Steele) remains glued to home movies of her late husband. Smith is straight-up bonkers with his grotesque lackey Face (Torrey Wigfield) in tow and Mendelsohn a lecherous freak willing to do anything to acquire what he desires. Even Eva Mendes‘ Cat and Reda Kateb‘s cab driver—voices of reason and assistance—are not quite part of reality. They know what’s wrong in the town, but they embrace the weird and guide lost souls through.
As for the fictitious Lost River itself, the fact of its slow demise—Gosling shot in Detroit, MI amongst its own dilapidated infrastructure and defeated inhabitants—is intriguing in itself. It was one of the few towns in the area not flooded over due to a new dam’s construction. Locals believe a curse befell them, one that can only be lifted by bringing the head of a beast back to the surface from the drowned civilization at the end of a lightposted road disappearing into water. Bones being one of the Alices in this Wonderland refuses to accept such a mystical explanation for all that has gone wrong in his life, but at a certain point one must try every feasible option at arm’s reach. Gosling ensures the descent is a beautiful one with majesty in its destruction.
While some moments are mesmerizing like the charred remains of burning homes or wide expanses of graffiti-covered walls or overgrown abandoned zoos, others are equally odd. Sometimes it’s as though the quality of the device used to capture his film changes from smooth high definition to gritty, grainy shadows just as the naturalism of the actors moves from professional faces to folks who obviously actually live at the production site. These locals often feel like grade school performers knowingly trying to not look at the camera or so desperate to get their lines out that they’re demeanor and posture are stilted by nerves. You could look at them with a certain charm, but the darkness of this tale is somewhat counter-intuitive to those means. Thankfully after about the first half hour Gosling sticks to his principal cast.
Some transitions are clunky and the decision for abstract montages at random the hallmark of a first-time filmmaker, but you cannot deny the power much of what’s onscreen possesses. Success or failure, Lost River is better than most Hollywood output for simply existing in a realm of introspection and ambiguity. Moments like Hendricks carving off her face, De Caestecker paddling out into a lake illuminated by street lamps, or Mendelsohn singing and dancing under a red hue are something to behold. The latter’s air of superiority and Smith’s blatant disregard for humanity provides familiar monsters drawn as gatekeepers to overcome. Billy and Bones are on the edge of being consumed whole with the nostalgia of home forming an albatross that pulls them towards the harsh cruelty of mankind destroying or assimilating all in its path.