Review: Lost River

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(2014) Drama/Neo-Noir

Written/Directed by: Ryan Gosling

Starring: Christina Hendricks, Iain De Caestecker, Saoirse Ronan, Matt Smith

They say: “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” but for Ryan Gosling, it may have garnered too much attention for his directorial debut Lost River. Compared with frequent collaborator Nicolas Winding Refn, as well as David Lynch and Terrence Malick, Lost River unquestionably spews the visual styles of the mentioned, and has been criticized for a lack of substance for style. These criticisms only count for the similarities in style between the neon colors and technical framing of certain set pieces, but Lost River holds itself as something completely original. Original in story and character, the film propels the audience into an world of melancholic atmosphere and a sweat sense of dread.

Set in a barren, demolished city filmed in Detroit, Lost River tells the story of a single mother named Billy and her two sons, who struggle financially and are close to losing their house. The eldest son Bones stumbles upon an underwater city and Billy gets involved in a bizarre fetish nightclub. As the two try to maintain stability, they delve deeper into the nightmarish realities under the seemingly empty city.

This strange premise works because of the heightened visual atmosphere and beautiful cinematography by Benoît Debie, who’s previous works like Enter the Void and Spring Breakers definitely carry through this film. Every scene has a haunting use of heavy shadows and vibrant colors that play to the fantastic elements within the films and the characters. Whether its in the nightclub scenes, or the streets outside a gas station, almost every shot has glowing faces and walls that really provide an ethereal quality to dreamlike imagery. This really stand out within the glowing purple-pink walls as Billy descends down into the hallways of the nightclub and it feels both exotic and seedy.

Beautiful shots asides, the film really centers on the struggle to maintain stability in a crumbling world. Bones clashes with a thug-like prowler named Bully (played by Matt Smith) over collecting copper to make money. This conflict creates immense tension because Bully’s presence is significantly menacing as an antagonist who thrives on the destruction and appears to be a king. He sits on a makeshift thrown attached to a convertible and cruises the ruins spouting threats over a loudspeaker like a twisted patrolman making sure his presence is known. When Bully is on screen, you believe he is capable of terrible things, and he embodies this anarchistic sensibility when he knows he can do what he wants. Rat (played by Saoirse Ronan) shares a sense of instability with Bones as she lives with her catatonic grandmother across the street. They both find  comfort with each other although they know it can’t last. This relationship carries the film through both characters naivety and interest in the “spell” of the underground city.

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Gosling tells this fantasy like story about growing poverty in a very nuanced way, but doesn’t try to say anything clear. Instead, the images and atmosphere take over over the social commentary, which is effective in telling a small story about people reaching stability. Lost River doesn’t try to have a big picture, but uses its subtext for visual panache. One interesting detail is the nightclub that Billy eventually works for. In a nightmarish cabaret, blood and mutilation is mixed with a classic entertainment style that proves popular by the audience members cheering while blood is sprayed on their face. Gosling expresses the idea that when the outside world diminishes, the inner animals come out. Billy’s only hope for financial support is through this dark lifestyle, and it involves getting involved with shady people. Dave (played by Ben Mendelsohn) delivers an incredibly creepy performance as someone who helps Billy get the job at the nightclub, but soon proves to be anything but helpful.

Lost River is ultimately a visual treat with characters you care about. It doesn’t aim for something greater, but keeps its intentions small and close to home. Criticism of borrowing stylistic choices aside, if viewed all alone, the film really stands out as painting a portrait of a dreamlike, or nightmarish vision of a future that may be more real to life.

Alex Gougeon is a Toronto-Based freelance Writer, Musician and Videographer who loves everything Film and Music. Alex’s recent reviews: Death Grips’ new album, The Powers that B, here, Nothing’s Guilty of Everything here, the film Mommy here.

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