On paper, there's something intriguing about Ryan Gosling's directorial debut: as if it were an extension of his hyper-romantic, retro-Halloween music project Dead Man's Bones shifting into Lynchian "Black Lodge/Red Room" territory via the formalist stylization of Danish provocateur Nicolas Winding Refn. It's a heady brew for anyone to take on, let alone a recognizably talented actor without much prior film-making experience; no wonder Lost River is a mess, though it is so more out of awkwardness and over-reach than of lack of talent.
Shot in the derelict Detroit that has become the poster city for the collapse of the American working-class, but set in a fictional, decaying town called Lost River, the film has become a much-maligned folly since its unveiling at Cannes in 2014. Long on atmospherics and style, even if borrowed heavily from David Lynch's surrealistic cabarets, Mr. Gosling's aiming at a somewhat fairy-tale-ish fable about grace and redemption, through the story of Bones (Iain de Caestecker), who yearns to make a new life for him and his family. Most everyone around him seems to hang on to a past that will never return, the best example being the grandmother next door (played by horror movie diva Barbara Steele) who lives literally locked inside the memories that threaten to collapse around her; Bones seems to be the only one looking forward to a future outside Lost River.
But that fable never really coalesces narratively, with the shorthand of the heavy-handed visual symbolism insufficient to support its plot stretched thin, and Mr. Gosling is less interested in explaining the whys and the hows of the story than in enveloping the viewer in the decadent carny atmospheres he conjures elegantly but soullessly. The result is a film full of striking but hollow tableaux in search of a thread to hang on to, where you sense its creator barreled forward into it without actually giving a second thought to how it would all work together. There's a lot of talent here, and stuff worth checking out; it's like a direct, unfiltered transmission from Mr. Gosling's mind that illuminates his interests but seems to make little sense to those on the outside.
US, 2013, 95 minutes
Starring Christina Hendricks, Saoirse Ronan, Iain de Caestecker, Matt Smith, Reda Kateb, Barbara Steele, Eva Mendes, Ben Mendelsohn
Directed and written by Ryan Gosling; cinematographer Benoit Debie; composer Johnny Jewel; designer Beth Mickle; costumes Erin Benach; editors Valdis Óskarsdóttir and Nico Leunen; effects supervisor Janelle L. Croshaw; producers Marc Platt, Mr. Gosling, Adam Siegel, Michel Litvak and David Lancaster, for Marc Platt Productions, Phantasma Films and Bold Films
Screened September 8th 2015, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon, distributor press screening