Ryan Gosling draws on his favourite filmmakers to produce his debut as writer-director, an often dazzling and always thought-provoking modern fairy tale that's never less than beautiful to look at. If the brazen and numerous reference points to auteurs past and present are anything to go by he seems to have great taste, but the magpie technique (ridiculed on the picture’s debut at Cannes) employed by Gosling is much more than homage.
This is a film fascinated with cinema – what has gone before, what is happening now, what will happen in the future – so his building on other people’s work is perfectly in-step with its themes, something he quite deliberately, and playfully, brings into the narrative.
Lost River is a kind of bonkers, autobiographical fantasy about the creative process. Christina Hendricks plays Billy, a single mum struggling to make payments on a mortgage she should never have been given in the first place in the crumbling fictional town of the title, constructed adjacent to another town that was wiped-out to make way for a reservoir.
In pleading her case for keeping her home to new bank manager Dave (the ever-sinister Ben Mendelsohn), Billy is offered a job at the mysterious club Dave has set up, the back of house run by main attraction Cat (Mendes). Meanwhile, Billy’s eldest Bones (De Caestecker) has fallen foul of local self-appointed underworld king Bully (Smith), and struggles to keep himself and neighbour Rat (Ronan) out of his violent clutches.
It’s a film of broad archetypes and otherworldly dread where Lynch, Refn and Argento are the obvious touchstones, but there are also nods to Spielberg, Malick and especially Harmony Korine, the latter’s perfect sense of corrupted and corrupting Americana apparent. It’s full of striking visuals (shot by Benoît Debie, who worked on Korine’s Spring Breakers and is Gaspar Noé’s cinematographer of choice) and flourishes of metaphor, ranging from the very clever indeed to the uncomfortably on-the-nose – three or four too many burning houses, and Bones literally going to the well of the past to save the future are chief among those – but overall this is a fascinating and ballsy first step behind the camera for Gosling.
He’s constructed some powerfully subversive, haunting scenes and there’s a pervasive self-awareness and savvy that make the missteps forgivable. For example his apparent fascination with, and rejection of, Hollywood’s mainstream output, particularly its treatment of women, is quite brilliantly manifest in Dave’s hideous night spot and shows a real depth of thinking to compliment his great work with the imagery and actors.
Similarly, the casting of Reda Kateb, last widely seen as the informant tortured at length by Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty, as cab-driver-cum-protector to Hollywood’s other famous red head Hendricks is another welcome provocative touch. It’s self-indulgent, and one can tell the plot, such as it is, was far from the thrust of Gosling’s ambition, but there’s more than enough to point to a successful secondary career for the reluctant heartthrob once those abs start to sag, and hopefully a bit before then.