'Lost River': Cannes Review

'Lost River,' Ryan Gosling (Un Certain Regard)
Courtesy of Festival De Cannes

The actor’s highly anticipated writing and directing debut -- previously known as How to Catch a Monster -- was picked up by Warner Bros. for U.S. distribution ahead of its Cannes premiere. Shot in Detroit, the fantasy drama features Gosling’s Drive co-star Christina Hendricks as a single mother swept into a dark underworld. Saoirse Ronan, Eva Mendes and Matt Smith also star. Gosling has been a frequent Cannes visitor, most recently with last year’s Only God Forgives. (Sales: Sierra/Affinity)

A strikingly derivative directorial debut by Ryan Gosling.

Ryan Gosling in his directorial debut, screened in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, wades up to his neck into David Lynch territory.

Making his writing and directing debut, Ryan Gosling wades up to his neck into David Lynch territory in Lost River, a visual and aural sensory bath that shows some real flair but feels madly derivative at every moment.

Centered upon some holdouts who linger far too long in dilapidated houses in a gutted American town, this curiosity piece will secure itself a theatrical niche with adventurous young audiences on the basis Gosling’s name and its diverse outre elements.   

Lynch is the blatant touchstone here, but it would be easy to make a case for other influences, beginning with Terrence Malick, Nicolas Winding Refn and Gaspar Noe, whose regular cinematographer, Benoit Debie, was chosen to do the honors here. As with Lynch and Noe, Gosling’s original screenplay spins on relatively opaque characters, living in a vaguely unsettling regular world, who mysteriously enter a lurid, druggy, dreamlike sub-sphere of reality where the rules are vague and customary constraints vanish.   

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Among the few remaining residents of a clearly once-handsome residential neighborhood (filmed—big surprise--in the Detroit area) are striking single mother Billy (Christina Hendricks), her handsome late-teen son Bones (Ian De Caestrecker) and adorable very young son Franky (Landyn Stewart), the latter of whom dominates the delightful opening credits sequence. 

Despite meager funds and a pitiful job market, Billy unconvincingly argues that she wants to hang on to the house because she grew up in it. One would think such a woman and her family would be a tad vulnerable in such a place, but there’s hardly anyone around to bother them, except for predatory nut-job Bully (Matt Smith), who cruises around in a lounge chair mounted on the back of an enormous old Cadillac convertible yelling threatening nonsense to virtually no one.   

Such narrative as there is involves Billy’s attempt to find gainful employment, which leads her to a glamorously gamey nightclub, presided over by arrogant financier Dave (an uncomfortably effective Ben Mendelsohn), where the stage show starring Cat (Eva Mendes) features performers appearing to be tortured and/or killed in very gory ways. In due course, Billy develops a routine in which she peels off her facial skin to reveal the blood and muscle underneath. Audiences, of course, eat it up.   

Bones is quite taken with neighbor girl Rat (Saoirse Ronan) who lives with her mute grandmother (longtime cult figure Barbara Steele), a glamorous grande dame who spends her days endlessly watching old home movies of herself and her late beloved husband dressed to the nine at a glamorous function.   

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Bully and his moronic cohort with a kind of Joker mouth have it out for Bones, who at one point goes on the run through the woods to a reservoir that sits atop a submerged city. There’s a half-hearted attempt to develop suspense when Bully gets Rat cornered one night, and dangerous Dave sure would like to jump Billy, but Gosling is far more interested in playing with symbolic fire and water imagery than in following up on commonplace physical and emotional trajectories.     

The visuals are undeniably dreamy, but they mostly seem borrowed from other filmmakers’ dreams. There’s a Twin Peaks feel of an alternate, off-kilter world to the whole thing, one in which arbitrary, quasi-surrealistic images barge in, sometimes for symbolic reasons, at other times arbitrarily. Many of them relate to ruin and decay—civic, environmental, bodily—and there is a sense of the ghosts who occupy both the ruined homes and the underwater town.   

As beautifully presented as the imagery is, however, none of it registers deeply because it all seems like borrowed goods. It’s flashy enough to engage the eye, but the experience is akin to flipping through a gorgeous art photography book featuring an assortment of artists rather than one. 

The soundtrack has a similar lively eclecticism.   

There’s talent enough on display here to create a measure of interest in a second Gosling feature, but one would hope that he might work with a co-screenwriter next time, forget about his favorite other directors and use a style that organically suits the subject. 

Production companies: Marc Platt Productions, Phantasma Films, Bold Films

Cast: Christina Hendricks, Saoirse Ronan, Iain de Caestecker, Matt Smith, Reda Kateb, Barbara Steele, Eva Mendes, Ben Mendelsohn, Landyn Stewart

Director: Ryan Gosling

Screenwriter: Ryan Gosling

Producers: Marc Platt, Ryan Gosling, Adam Siegel, Michael Litvak, David Lancaster

Executive producers: Gary Michael Walters, Noaz Deshe

Director of photography: Benoit Debie

Production designer: Beth Mickle

Costume designer: Erin Benach

Editors: Nico Leunen, Valdis Oskardottir

Music: Johnny Jewel

105 minutes