Ryan Gosling is a tremendously talented actor, but he should really leave the storytelling to someone else. In his debut as a writer-director, the stylish-but-maddening Lost River, he seems to have picked up all of the worst habits of the auteurs he’s worked with over the course of his career—especially Nicolas Winding Refn, whose signature brand of empty, neon-lit nihilism (Drive, Only God Forgives) is so copied here, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Gosling wants to be a forger as well as a filmmaker.
Shot in one of the more apocalyptically run-down neighborhoods of Detroit, where ramshackle houses are marked for demolition and overgrown lawns hint at the mass exodus triggered by economic hard times, Gosling’s dreamlike fable centers on one hard-luck family victimized by the recession. Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks, a long way from Joan’s glamorous furs and frocks, stars as Billy – a single mother with two sons scraping to get by. She was recently the victim of a predatory loan and is now about to lose her dilapidated home if she can’t come up with money fast. Enter Bloodline’s Ben Mendelsohn as a skeezy bank manager who pruriently suggests that he may know a way to help her out. It just so happens that he runs an underground burlesque show where patrons hoot and holler for bloody pantomimes inspired by the ghastlier reels of a Dario Argento film. Gosling’s real-life partner off-screen, Eva Mendes, is one of the world-weary performers there who shows Billy the ropes.
Meanwhile, Billy’s oldest son Bones (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Iain De Caestecker) is trying to earn whatever he can by stripping copper wire from abandoned buildings and selling it for scrap. But he, too, feels the world crushing in on him. He and his girlfriend Rat (Saoirse Ronan, so named because she has a pet rodent) are being menaced by a strung-out thug (Dr. Who’s Matt Smith) who has a nasty habit of torturing those who wrong him by slicing off their lips. Rat tells Bones that their town of Lost River is doomed. It turns out that years earlier a nearby town was flooded to make way for a dam and they’ve been cursed ever since. The only way to reverse the bad juju and change their fates is to swim down to this Atlantis and bring back a piece of the town. Or something like that. Honestly, the whole thing is kind of a mess.
What makes Lost River so frustrating is that despite its narrative meandering and jackhammer-subtle symbolism, it’s actually beautifully shot and composed. Gosling may not be much of a writer, but he does have a great eye for hauntingly art-directed squalor and Lynchian visual poetry. Come to think of it, maybe he’s just chosen the wrong secondary profession to pursue. Instead of writer-director, he should really consider cinematographer.