Ryan Gosling’s first effort behind the camera is Lost River, a dreamlike thriller starring Christina Hendricks, Iain de Caestecker, Saoirse Ronan and Matt Smith. Gosling borrows a lot visually from directors like Nicolas Winding Refn who he has worked with to great success (Drive) and moderate failure (Only God Forgives), and unfortunately his first go at directing is much closer to the latter as this movie definitely suffers from style-over-substance.
Lost River is a mysterious drama that follows single mother Billy (Hendricks) who gets tangled up in a sadistic and dark club run by Dave (Ben Mendelsohn), while her son Bones (de Caestecker) discovers a secret underwater town where he meets a ruthless and sadistic man aptly named Bully (Smith). Before they know it, the pair are trapped in horrifying predicaments where the only way to escape may not be the least bloody.
Every shot of Lost River looks absolutely beautiful, be it the neon-lit hallways of Dave’s club or the decaying, graffiti-covered abandoned buildings Bones explores. And backing up this visual feast is a haunting score from composer Johnny Jewel. So technically this movie is extraordinary, and you have to applaud Benoit Debie’s cinematography. But when it comes to the plot this movie is – as the title suggests – lost.
The purpose of Dave’s club is underdeveloped. Billy’s financial difficulties set up her introduction to this underworld well, but much of the gore feels needless and gratuitous. The movie isn’t pumping out gallons of blood, but the appeal of seeing someone remove their face or perform a short dance routine before brutally murdered, while it is all just for show, isn’t clearly vocalized and it begins to just feel like violence for the sake of violence, as if Gosling wanted to build on the copious violence of Only God Forgives. And the plastic tomb that encapsulated Billy purely for Dave’s enjoyment felt unnecessary.
Much of her storyline felt unnecessary in fact, as Bones’ avoidance of Bully and his relationship with Rat (Ronan) was much more engaging. This trio of actors were the most interesting to watch, and although the budding romance between Bones and Rat felt forced in the beginning, by the final moments of the movie you really bought them as a couple.
Matt Smith as Bully was immensely fun to watch. He was scary and unnerving, and you could never trust what he would do next. A stretch of the movie involving Bones, Rat, her pet rat, Bully and his sidekick Face (Torrey Wigfield) at a gas station is edge-of-your-seat worthy as Bully is such a spontaneously violent character you don’t know what he may do next.
With half of the movie falling flat in a pool of blood and the other half being a tense, unnerving piece of work that you wish had more of a focus, Lost River starts strong, goes off on separate tangents, all before coming back into focus at its conclusion. I do consider myself a fan of gore and violence but only when it is justified, otherwise the movie just feels like it is doing it for the shock value.
Great acting, beautiful cinematography and direction, and a hypnotic score are weighed down by an unfocused narrative, senseless gore and half of it’s story being wholly uninteresting, making for a mixed bag. Not going to fully recommend this movie, but if it pops up on VOD: