We can all imagine what a post-apocalyptic world might look like. So many films and TV shows have depicted fallen worlds that we take the iconography of those tales for granted: riots, deserted cities, violence at every turn. What about just before the crumble? What would those last days preceding utter chaos look like? That’s the scenario Ryan Gosling explores in his first directorial effort, Lost River. Within that framework, Gosling – who wrote the script as well as directed – uses magical realism to create a fairy tale, the story ever so slightly blurring the lines between fantasy and reality. He has made a rather haunting film.
Christina Hendricks plays Billy, a single mother of two boys, who is trying desperately to hold on to her childhood home. Because she is out of work, and three months behind on the mortgage, her teenage son Bones (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Iain De Caestecker) brings in money the only way he knows how- he strips copper pipes from condemned buildings to sell as scrap.
They live in the small town of Lost River. The city of Detroit stood in for the town during filming, and cinematographer Benoît Debie uses the sort of hollowed out desolation that the city is known for to evoke a dystopian future. Terrorizing the town of Lost River is Bully, a sociopath who targets Bones for stealing what Bully considers his copper. Bully is played by Matt Smith. I must confess ignorance about almost all things Doctor Who, but Smith – one of the most recent actors to portray the Doctor in the long running British series – is one hell of an actor. The menace he displays in this role is unsettling. Bully’s method of attack, using a pair of scissors, left me nauseous.
Lost River only gets darker from there. Gosling explores grimmer shades of humanity through the character of Dave (Ben Mendelsohn), who works for the bank where Billy owes her late mortgage payments. He moves from town to town firing bank managers who have let the lenders get too far behind. He tells Billy she can make more than enough money to get right with the bank… if she’ll work as a performer at his new club.
Dave’s club is where first-time filmmaker Gosling really lets things rip. The whole movie has an aura of surrealism, but almost every scene in the club is like a fever dream. Gosling uses the motif of the Grand Guignol to explore the collective bleak fantasies of people who are down on their luck, and have nowhere else to turn. The shock that comes at the end of the first act we see in the club is just a taste of the blood-spattered Guignol aesthetic that Gosling employs throughout. This also works as a bit of self-reflexive cinema, because if, as a member of the audience of Lost River, you enjoy these sequences, the film forces you to acknowledge that fact and come to terms with it. The producers put everything into these scenes, and you can see every dreadful penny on screen. Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say that Billy performs a routine, which takes the 1960 Georges Franju horror film Eyes without a Face as inspiration.
Meanwhile, Bones tries to steer clear of the mad Bully, but also nurtures a nascent relationship with his next door neighbor, Rat. Here’s the deal with the character names: Gosling’s philosophy was to create broad archetypes (hence names like Bones, Bully, and Rat) that the actors could make their own through improvisation and inventing their own back stories. Rat is played by the enormously talented Saoirse Ronan, who was in last year’s Grand Budapest Hotel and played the young Briony in 2007’s Atonement. Ronan’s acting here is an incredible mix of openness, vulnerability, and honesty.
Rat tells Bones the town is under a curse, and it was brought on when the neighboring town was flooded to create the existing reservoir. She tells him breaking the curse might put things right in the town of Lost River. Bones’ exploration of the flooded town gives the film the fantastical quality I mentioned earlier.
Otherwise, the scenes in the lowest part of the club are where Lost River shines visually. The choices Gosling makes brought instantly to my mind a director he has worked with twice before, Nicolas Winding Refn. Gosling wears this influence on his shimmery silver jacket sleeve. The cinematography has a very 80s aesthetic. The colors are in bright neon, and the glow that pulsates from the screen during these moments envelops you, creating a sort of claustrophobia. Gosling and cinematographer Debie also brought in a 70s technique throughout the movie, the slow moving zoom lens.
I saw Gosling and Refn’s first collaboration, Drive, before watching Lost River, and I am a great admirer of it. To prepare to write this review, I felt I should take a look at their second movie together, Only God Forgives. That movie was a major disappointment for me, but Gosling took what he learned from Refn and he delivered a powerful first effort behind the camera in Lost River. He’s an artist to watch, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.