There are echoes of Nicholas Winding Refn’s bizarre Only God Forgives for example, in which Gosling co-starred and of the work of David Lynch and Terrence Malick. You could in fact get some entertainment from playing a game of “spot the influence”, if your attention flags when watching this one. Because what Gosling hasn’t yet learned is how to create convincing and engaging characters and tell a good story, which holds the attention. He is a superb actor and shows some promise as a director but maybe it was a mistake to write the script himself.
The story, such as it is, is set in the derelict and dying town of the title. Single mother Billy (Hendricks) is struggling to hang on her ramshackle house. She is broke and a victim of the toxic mortgage situation, as she discovers when she meets the new bank manager Dave (Mendelsohn), who is about to foreclose on her. He offers her a job in his sideline enterprise, a sleazy club where punters indulge their dark fantasies watching women apparently being mutilated. One of the film’s most startling and creepily distasteful scenes is of Billy appearing to slice off her own face for their entertainment.
Meanwhile her elder son Bones (De Caestecker) is in trouble with a local hoodlum, Bully (Smith), who thinks he owns the town and all that’s in it, including the copper Bones has been stripping from the abandoned houses to make a few bob for his mum. Bones has a friend Rat (Ronan), so called because she owns a pet rat, which comes to a sticky end in another rather nasty scene. Rat is a bit on the fey side, perhaps not surprisingly as she shares her life with her eccentric grandmother (Barbara Steele), who never moves from her chair in front of the television screen, spending all her time watching an old video of her own wedding.
On the plus side the film is really beautifully filmed by Benoît Debie, apart that is from when his director insists he shoot in the sort of murky gloom beloved by fancy film makers, where you can’t see what on earth is going on. Debie’s evocative shots of the derelict town, the nearby swamp and burning houses are works of art. The problem is they rarely move the story on one jot.
The actors meanwhile do their professional best as they struggle to bring life the sort of characters that you only ever see in art movies. In one of the interviews in the extras on this DVD Gosling admits that Hendricks, playing a role about as far removed as it could be from sexy Joan in Mad Men, puts the flesh on what must have been a very skeletal characterization on the page – she’s actually rather good – but Matt Smith could have done with a magic telephone box to whisk him out of the movie. Mendelsohn is an effective sleazebag and his rendition in the club of the song “Water” has to be heard to be believed. Eva Mendes is effective as his star performer, who does her best to help Billy, but poor Steele, veteran of so many 50s and 60s horror film, where she at least had a lot of screaming to do, has a dreary time here with no lines and a character who does absolutely nothing, not even stirring when her house is on fire around her.
Extras on the DVD include interviews with Gosling, Smith and Ronan and a 40 minute question and answer session recorded after a UK screening of the film, which may or may not throw some light for some on what the director was trying to achieve. The film may appeal to fans of Gosling and those who enjoy movies for their look rather than their content. Looking at the strengths of Lost River – and there are some – Gosling may one day direct a film that works, particularly if he employs a better script writer, but sadly this one ain’t it.
Review by Carol Allen
Lost River is out on DVD on 01 June 2015.