The best way to approach Ryan Gosling’s debut as a writer/director is to imagine what might happen if David Lynch were ever to shoot a nature documentary. Or if a consortium of mumblecore filmmakers dropped acid and decided to make a horror film. Something that Terence Malick might have tossed together after bumming around Detroit for a few weeks. The worst way would be to watch the film and try and determine afterwards what that was all about.
Lost River would claim to be a story about a few benighted victims being preyed upon in a nightmare scenario of post-industrial collapse. Single mother Billy (Christina Hendricks) is dead set on keeping her family home, no matter that she’s out of work, the bank wants its money, and the town is steadily dying around her. Her son Bones (Iain De Caestecker) makes a little money stripping abandoned buildings for scrap metal and is hoping to fix up his car to get away. Everybody has problems. Billy makes an ugly deal with Dave, the man from the bank (Ben Mendelsohn), to take a job at his underground club, Bones runs afoul of the local ganglord psychopath Bully (Matt Smith) and is doing his best to protect himself and the cute girl who lives across the way (Saoirse Ronan). She, by the way, is named Rat. Because she has a pet rat.
Although technically set in the invented town of Lost River, the film was shot on the gone-to-nature corners of Detroit’s half-collapsed urban grid. Setting is everything here, with the camera continually swooning over one piece of beautifully half-collapsed architecture or onetime city block turning back to forest. Places like an abandoned zoo, or ranks of streetlights bracketing a street that’s disappeared completely under the greenery provide an achingly beautiful visual dissonance.
The characters are lost amidst all this decorous ruin. Gosling’s script starts in meandering wistfulness, with some Malick-ian sun-speckled shots through the tall grass and a man advising Bones to leave the dying town now: “Nobody’s coming back.” But once Dave and Bully enter the stage, they take it over with their crisply acted but tiresome brutality. Bully likes to have his henchman drive him through the deserted streets in a grand old with an easy chair mounted on the back; that is, when he’s not using scissors to slice the lips off people he thinks have crossed. For his part, Dave’s club caters to the clientele’s pent-up rage by staging grand guignol tableaus of prettied-up women being pretend-butchered.
You can see glimmers of a statement here about the coarsening effects of economic devastation on a population, as well as nods to a more elemental and even magical tale. In fact, the film’s original title, How to Catch a Monster, conjures up a different story entirely. Something with a Neil Gaiman taste for conjuring up crooked angles of fantasy in the midst of mundane scenarios. It would have been wonderful were more of the dark magic that must have been swirling in Gosling’s head have made it onto the screen in any creatively coherent form. All that potential is mostly whisked away, though, in favor of more post-industrial baroque filigree.
Lost River wears a lot of love on its stylish sleeve. It may even be evidence that Gosling could craft a decent film on his next outing, assuming there was a decent script to work with. But it remains little more than a jumbled melange of influences flying in loose formation.