Director: Ryan Gosling
Stars: Christina Hendricks, Iain De Cestecker
2 (out of 5) Globes
At his best, Ryan Gosling, actor, is coiled, reined-in and precise — a Method man, but in the more introspective, cooler Montgomery Clift vein than the splutteringly emotive Marlon Brando. Turns out Ryan Gosling, filmmaker, is quite different. If it was an actor it would be the ham who tries anything and everything, attempting to shock you into submission without realizing the work is by turns sloppy, desperate and derivative. Who knew, underneath the cool, placid exterior of the guy from “Drive” and “Crazy, Sexy, Love” (much less “The Mickey Mouse Club”), lurked the kind of mind that would dream up a villain (Matt Smith) with a thing for cutting off people’s lips, or a scene where Christina Hendricks surgically removes her own face?
Gotcha moments like those are “Lost River”’s bread and butter, punctuating a dreamy non-narrative that’s more a place of mind than a tale. Hendricks’ waitress-stripper is one of the few people who haven’t vacated a never-identified urban wasteland (shot in Detroit). Hard up for cash, she agrees to the ghoulish advances of a slimy banker (Ben Mendelsohn), who tells her, the film’s goofy parlance, “Everybody’s got to do the shimmy shimmy ya.” What he means to say is she must acquire work at a local den of mega-sin, where the crowds come to watch Eva Mendes feign bloody death. Meanwhile, Billy’s son (Iain De Cestecker) kills time by prowling abandoned buildings for copper and evading Smith’s baddie, who rides about in his own pimpmobile and later talks to a mousy girl named Rat (Saoirse Ronan) about touching her rat.
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This is unpleasant in the extreme, and one could cynically read it as Gosling trying to alienate his fawning fanbase even more than did his last Refn joint, “Only God Forgives.” For what it’s worth, Gosling does have a vision, technically. Granted, it’s one stitched together from chunks from others. “Lost River” starts with a Terrence Malick rhapsody to childhood wonder, segues into Harmony Korine urban rot spliced with David surrealism (and, you know, no one ever rips that guy off). Later it takes dips into Refn synth-menace and even Clive Barker body horror. Not that ripping off others should be in itself a cause for alarm; Quentin Tarantino has made a rich career out of mix-matching influences into unique wholes. But Tarantino has a deep relationship with the material he borrows; he interacts with it, repurposes it and finds new meaning by mashing one genre with another.
Gosling, by contrast, is a rookie, who borrows shallowly. He throws out images and ideas recklessly. He does have a gift, not only for extremes but also, admittedly, for terrible beauty. He likes to set houses (and bikes) on fire and film them in slow-mo, stopping the movie dead for lingering shots of red embers floating through blackness. There’s a nearby town long ago submerged for a reservoir, yielding images of old streetlights poking out of the water. One can imagine Gosling jotting these ideas down after a vivid dream, wondering how he could cram them into a single narrative.
The story is just barely there — it wants to be a fable — yet “Lost River” still feels studied. Characters spell out the themes of capitalism turned grotesque in the dialogue, and the nastiness isn’t too nasty; bad things happen to people, but they pass, and evil will always be vanquished. Everything is disposable in “Lost River” and none of it has weight. When Ben Mendelsohn busts out an impromptu, predictably unpredictable dance move, it’s just another momentary distraction before the next horror. Everything in it passes before the eyes before seeping out of the memory, which, given how ugly some of it is, is just as well. Still, better this than Edward Norton’s “Keeping the Faith.”
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge