With the eerie, dreamlike noir of David Lynch, poetic visuals of lower class decay a la Harmony Korine's "Gummo," and the cartoonish violence found in Nicolas Winding Refn's "Drive," Ryan Gosling's flashy directorial debut "Lost River" is certainly an accomplished collage of familiar ingredients. That's both to the credit of the movie's stylish production values — it looks and sounds great — and the reason why it never really works. Rather than making his own movie, Gosling has composed a messy love letter to countless others.
The sole fresh element is its setting, the rundown wreckage of Detroit's Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects, where struggling single mom Billy (Christina Hendricks) lives a tattered existence with her teen son Bones (Ian De Caestecker) and toddler Franky (Landyn Stewart), desperately attempting to hold onto their home without defaulting on her loans. Pleading for assistance from local banker Dave (a slimy Ben Mendolsohn), she takes his recommendation for a gig at a peculiar local cabaret headlined by eccentric performer Cat (a ghoulish Eva Mendes, holding her own in several fleeting scenes for her outlandish energy). Cat's onstage routines usually include a fair amount of fake bloodshed, and it's not long before Billy's following suit, peeling off her face with a razor blade for her transfixed audience under harsh neon lights. Sometimes, she's forced to wear a glass suit designed for clients to fondle in between her performances, or something to that effect. So there's that.
Meanwhile, the solitary Bones wastes his days stripping abandoned houses and evading the advances of a local thug named Bully (a by-the-books scowling tough guy played by former "Doctor Who" star Matt Smith). Bones' sole companion in this depressing wasteland is potential romantic interest Rat (an under-utilized Saoirse Ronan)—called that way, um, because she owns a pet rat—who lives nearby with her catatonic grandmother. The duo hang out and complain about their alienation, evade the advances of Bully, and eventually discuss the enigmatic history of an old town buried under the river on the swampy outskirts of town.
It's this last ingredient that brings some semblance of an original idea to the picture (although it's easy enough to see a touch of "Beasts of the Southern Wild" in its expressionistic use of watery graves). The mythological underwater arena makes for a thin but intriguing allegorical device to represent the ghosts of happier socioeconomic times, but its ramifications never fully blossom, even if the recurring visual of street lamps poking out of the water provides a nice touch. While Bones makes repeated journeys to the forgotten town, the real plot never has much to do with it. Instead, we get a lot of mournful yearning for a move elsewhere, both between the two would-be lovers and in conversations that Billy shares with an affable cab driver. There's not a whole lot else to latch onto as all the light, color and rhythmic music dominates scene after scene. "Everybody's looking out for a better life somewhere," one character mutters, as if hitting on a profoundly original concept.
"Lost River," however, never finds one. Gosling shows some ambition in pulling these disparate aspects into a vaguely intriguing plot, but credit for the strongest attributes of "Lost River" belongs elsewhere. The real stars of the show are cinematographer Benoit Debie ("Spring Breakers") and composer Johnny Jewel ("Drive"), whose efforts yield a sensory overload of blue and red visuals, shadowy exteriors, and a pulsating score that forces the scenes together. But the overall shallowness of the project is especially pronounced because there's so much to absorb among the surface ingredients.
As a metaphor for Detroit's financial collapse, "Lost River" treads familiar territory already effectively portrayed in the lyrical documentary "Detropia," which didn't even need to embellish its imagery to get the point across. "Lost River" is unapologetically heavy-handed, but to be fair, it doesn't pretend otherwise. The movie is unquestionably a visionary journey through recent arthouse cinema more than a grand political statement, but it never manages to head in a compelling direction.
Some actors turn to directing in an attempt to find a separate groove behind the camera. That could be the case on some level with this snazzy but forgettable vanity project, if only because Gosling the actor dances entirely to his own groove. "Lost River" suggests he felt the need to try out the same beats already being played around him.
"Lost River" premiered this week at the Cannes Film Festival. Warner Bros. will distribute it in the U.S. at an undetermined date.