When it was announced that Gosling would be making his feature debut, then called How to Catch a Monster, I was excited. The guy was on a streak as an actor, making great decision, after great decision on who he worked with, and the list of directors he was working with were bound to have a positive influence on his eventual style as a director. Throw in a cast of Christina Hendricks, Saoirse Ronan and Ben Mendelsohn and I found myself even more excited. The dark and mysterious premise also bode well, but this is all hype, how did the film turn out?
Pretty well, actually. Lost River is well shot by Gosling and his crew, capturing the dilapidated suburban landscape of Detroit like we’ve been transported to another world, all of the wear and tear on the city creating an eerie and foreboding vibe for the film. The story follows a single mother, Billy, and her two kids as they try and scrape by, trying to keep their home in the process as the rest of their neighborhood is literally torn down around them. When the local lender is taken over by a more nefarious figure, Dave, Billy is backed into a corner with no option left but to take her new loan holder up on his job proposition. In the meanwhile, Billy’s son, Bones, and his girl next door crush, Rat, are left to try to avoid the wrath of a local thug, Bully.
The two story threads remain separate throughout the course of the film (outside the obligatory intersections at the family home) and Gosling not connecting the two stories is probably the biggest missed opportunity he left off the table. The two threads work fine without intersecting one another, but finding a way to fold the two stories together might have made the film feel a bit more cohesive and of one piece. Still, Gosling leads both of his story threads to pretty riveting conclusions, all while finding one of the darkest happy endings I’ve seen in a while. A couple of loose threads could have been pulled in a little tighter here and there (i.e. the cab driver, what was with that diner scene?) and the mythical curse placed on the town could have been expanded upon a tad bit more, but Gosling is, more or less, getting his point across.
The imagery and mindset of the club Ben Mendelsohn’s Dave hosts at is Gosling’s most stand out idea in the film, and while it could have been explored a bit more fully it is almost endlessly intriguing. Mendelsohn is the perfect figure-head for a club of this type, his underlying malice hiding behind a thin layer of charm is exactly what a place like this needs as its leader. The acts of violence acted out for the sake of entertainment is a dark idea to bore into, but Gosling captures the mood of his version of the city so well, we easily get why people are here for enjoyment, even if we could never understand it.
I mentioned the work of the always great Mendelsohn, and when is he not great, but Matt Smith is also a fucked up delight as the local bully, Bully. Those scissors he wields are some how made effectively menacing, and his nihilistic world view is wonderfully portrayed through Smith’s eyes. Bully is plainly played out as the evil entity of the film, but Smith earns the label in spades. Hendricks and Ronan are both solid in their roles, even if they are both forced into the most straightforward characters in the film. Hendricks is especially effective as a mother willing to do what she can for her kids, all while keeping her dignity whenever it is confronted. Ronan needed more to do, and her grandmother storyline is a bit of undercooked sadness, but she makes the most of it being the great actress that she is. Eva Mendes brings a wonderfully contrasting positivity to the “violence club” sequences, and she leaves just enough mystery in the air to those pods that you will feel a tad cheated we didn’t get to see Gosling play with the idea more. Iain De Caestecker is the only face of the core cast I didn’t recognize, and he plays Bones with the right amount of rawness and rebellion that we can understand his desire to run, but believe everything that is holding him back.
Lost River isn’t for everyone, but it is a solid debut from Gosling behind the camera. He has a sharp eye, paints an engaging and dark tale and keeps it all together without being explicit with his storytelling. I bit more experience might have allowed Lost River to be something truly special, but as it stands it is still something well worth your time if you are up for something a bit different.