Lost River is the first-time film from the gifted actor Ryan Gosling, a distinction which makes the work neither good nor bad, but which will probably cause it to be given a more severe white-glove test from critics than usual. Of those critics, the art-house aficionados might dig this dark, fevered fable. Indeed, at the press screening I attended, one Milk Dud-popping daddy-o judged that while the film "wasn't perfect," it showed promise from the aspiring auteur Gosling.
Me and the missus, though, we thought it was jive. Indulgent and movie-like, Lost River is Gosling's weird, let's-do-this-thing folly. If it is a statement, it is one made by borrowing the vivid styles of the actual filmmakers he seems to admire, including Nicolas Winding Refn, the colour-blind Dane who directed the hunky Canadian in 2013's Only God Forgives. And perhaps Refn (or David Lynch or David Cronenberg) can understand what Gosling attempts to say – a baby's gibberish understandable to parents, but, for others, unintelligible.
Lost River is an unsettling preapocolyptic allegory and dystopian fantasy, set in a derelict place resembling a small-town version of Detroit. The imagery is intriguing, eerie and gritty. As the story goes, a river was dammed at some point, flooding other villages in the area but leaving Lost River as a would-be ghost town. "I don't want to leave," says one of the departing citizens, "but I want to live."
The ones who elect to stay are either desperate souls or ugly, evil opportunists. (There's your allegory.) Of the former, we have Mad Men's talented Christina Hendricks as a vulnerable single mother of two children – one a brush-cut tyke, the other a handsome but awkward and insecure teen named Bones, played with some mystery by Iain De Caestecker. Bones doesn't have much going on. From abandoned buildings he steals copper, which he pawns in order to fix that old car of his. It's a junker, but he needs it to run (because he needs to run).
This near-hopeless family is behind in its mortgage payments, which puts mother in debt to a predatory lender who is more predatory than most. Played to excellent oft-putting effect by Ben Mendelsohn, this guy's an all-pro creep. He runs a theatre of the macabre on the other side of town, where cocktails and humanity's darkest impulses are served.
Other characters include a level-headed girl next door and Bones's only friend (played discreetly by Saoirse Una Ronan) and a scissor-happy sociopath named Bully. Dude rides around in a Cadillac convertible – a symbol of Detroit's lost glory – and fancies himself as Lost River's thug-pope overlord.
I'm not sure what writer-director Gosling fancies himself as, to be honest.
In time, we may look back at Lost River as a fascinating mess or a misunderstood miss. As for his promise, I'd be fine if Gosling promises to never make a film like this again.