The rumblings of humanity’s underbelly remain a source of abiding interest in the world of moving images. Proving their fascination beyond the realms of reality TV, Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut Lost River indulges the actor’s own proclivities for extremes as it goes deep into a derelict Detroit community under threat from bullies and the bulldozers. But if you’re thinking social realism, forget it.
Billy (Hendricks) is a working mother who struggles to make the payments on her house and keep it together for her adolescent son Bones (de Caestecker) and a second, younger child. Bones makes some money on stripping copper at abandoned sites but runs afoul of a cutthroat weirdo. Eventually, Billy is forced to take up the offer of a sleazy bank manager to work in a Gothic-inspired nightclub. Meanwhile, Bones gets closer to his young friend Rat (Ronan) who tells him that the only way to break the bad spell is to bring up a piece of the town submerged in a local reservoir.
Gosling takes all manner of cues from directors as diverse as Nicolas Winding Refn, David Lean and Wong Kar-wai, whose neon nights and sharply punctuated editing combine to create a strong sense of stylized emotional isolation whilst also veering strongly into non-verbal Malick territory and fully exploiting the fire and water evocations of symbolist greats such as Tarkovsky. Not surprisingly, the finished product is a bit of a kaleidoscope.
The social text on extremes of cruelty and kindness remains elliptical, whilst imagery and script slither disconcertingly close to the naïve. Nonetheless, Gosling’s evident belief in innocence and the poetic force of urban myth imposes a winsome structure that charms us into believing that bonds to family and locality are stronger than the forces of mean-spirited, Darwinist survival in America’s Rust Belt.
Subcutaneously enforced by Johnny Jewel’s insistent score, this sweet-featured oddball of a film feels as intensely adolescent as its main protagonist. Like many teenagers, it demands a high level of tolerance for the choices it makes. But bring those with you and you’ll be amply rewarded.
Lost River | Directed by Ryan Gosling (USA 2014) with Christina Hendricks, Saoirse Ronan, Iain de Caestecker. Starts May 28