Evoca­tive por­trait of odd­ball Amer­ica

Ryan Gosling’s fea­ture writ­ing, di­rect­ing de­but is a heart­felt, melan­cholic mess.

Los Angeles Times - - MOVIES - By Mark Olsen mark.olsen@la­times.com

It’s dif­fi­cult to dis­cuss “Lost River,” the fea­ture de­but as writer and direc­tor from ac­tor Ryan Gosling, with­out ref­er­enc­ing the movie’s first ap­pear­ance nearly a year ago at the Cannes Film Fes­ti­val. It marked the pic­ture, rightly or wrongly, as some kind of grand-scale dis­as­ter-piece, and so it is just now get­ting a small-scale the­atri­cal open­ing along­side a dig­i­tal re­lease.

Turns out that “Lost River” is in­deed a mess, but it’s the best mess pos­si­ble, an evoca­tive grab bag of images and moods with a heart­felt sin­cer­ity and con­flict­ing im­pulses of ro­man­tic melan­choly and hard­scrab­ble hope­ful­ness.

The story con­cerns mem­bers of a fam­ily try­ing to hold onto their home as oth­ers around them are be­ing burnt out or torn down. Billy (Christina Hen­dricks) strug­gles to pro­vide for her two sons, and a sketchy bank manager Dave (Ben Men­del­sohn) points her to­ward a job at a night­club cabaret run by Cat (Eva Men­des). Billy’s older boy, Bones (Iain De Caestecker), runs afoul of lo­cal thug Bully (Matt Smith) over cop­per scav­enged from aban­doned build­ings, while a neigh­bor girl, Rat (Saoirse Ro­nan), finds her­self caught be­tween them. Shot amid the crum­bling ar­chi­tec­ture of Detroit, the film at times smacks of poverty tourism in a dis­con­cert­ing way.

Gosling, who does not ap­pear in the movie, is con­cerned more with vibes and feel­ings than straight­for­ward sto­ry­telling, which is what makes the film of­ten feel un­formed. There are hints at a re­la­tion­ship be­tween Hen­dricks’ work­ing mom and the cab driver (Reda Kateb) who shut­tles her around town; tease just enough that you want it to be ex­plored more com­pletely.

De Caestecker doesn’t have enough screen pres­ence to stand up to ev­ery­thing go­ing on around him, and so the film of­ten loses its cen­ter in scenes based on Bones. Men­del­sohn steals ev­ery mo­ment he’s in with an un­set­tling mix of sleaze, grace and ag­gres­sion.

Among Gosling’s sharpest choices was work­ing with Bel­gian cine­matog­ra­pher Benoît De­bie, who also shot “Spring Break­ers” and “En­ter the Void,” and the film is at its best and most alive when it goes full weirdo, leav­ing be­hind any pre­text to nat­u­ral­ism for a deeply sat­u­rated, color-soaked look. There are ar­rest­ing and in­deli­ble images, mostly around the Grand Guig­no­lin­spired night­club with its bizarre peep-show base­ment. The tops of street­lights par­tially sub­merged un­der wa­ter break the sur­face like ur­ban Loch Ness mon­sters.

The puls­ing, evoca­tive score by Johnny Jewel, whose mu­sic also fea­tured promi­nently in the Goslingstar­ring “Drive,” is a sim­i­larly smart ad­di­tion. The film’s over­all in­ter­est in mix­ing hor­ror movie aes­thetics and a child­ish, dream-like whimsy is in line with Gosling’s mu­si­cal project known as Dead Man’s Bones, which once put on shows at a Los An­ge­les mar­i­onette theater with a chil­dren’s choir.

There has long been a sense that if only Ryan Gosling the ac­tor would just set­tle down he could be a proper big time box of­fice movie star, but his tastes and in­cli­na­tions seem too will­ful and ec­cen­tric for that. Whether he di­rects again or this be­comes a one-off like ef­forts by Johnny Depp, Mar­lon Brando and Ed­ward Nor­ton, “Lost River” feels like a sum­ma­tion of his pre­oc­cu­pa­tions in its fa­ble-like naiveté and in­ter­sec­tion of the fan­tas­ti­cal, the ab­surd and the ro­man­tic.

On a con­ven­tional set of scales, “Lost River” is de­cid­edly light, while on an­other, it is more than worth its weight in the odd­ball Amer­i­cana of old TVs, junker cars, cop­per pip­ing and pa­pier­mâché. Gosling ob­vi­ously val­ues the cur­rency of one over the other, and it’s not hard to feel that we are the richer for it.

Warner Bros.

CHRISTINA HEN­DRICKS plays a strug­gling mom in “Lost River,” a grab bag of con­flict­ing im­pulses of ro­man­tic melan­choly and hard­scrab­ble hope­ful­ness.

Warner Bros.

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