The economic devastation of Detroit has at least one benefit – we can now make convincing post-apocalyptic movies right here at home. “Lost River,” a compelling art film (yes, art film) from Ryan Gosling (seriously) suggests that rural purgatory is all around us, and the wealthy are pushing the last few survivors through the gates of Hell. The famous Robert Doisneau image of the doorway to damnation is recreated in Ben Mendelsohn's bordello of fake blood, the weirdest section of this pretty weird movie. It's where Christina Hendricks agrees to stand in a plastic case, like a see-thru Iron Maiden, and let people dance around her to synth pop. That sounds like a random assortment of words, so I may have to back up a bit.
Hendricks is the mother of two in a dying area from which all the (cameraready non-actors) are fleeing. But she grew up in that house and doesn't want to sign it over to the sleazy bank man (Mendelsohn). So she agrees to go to his “Twin Peaks”-esque burlesque house (that really couldn't possibly exist anywhere) and work with Eva Mendes on dance routines that involve getting butchered. It's all prosthetics, but that doesn't make the moment where Hendricks rips her face off any easier to watch.
Her older son Bones (Iain De Caestecker) is entering his first relationship with screwy neighbor Rat (Saorise Ronan) and hates that his mother has to work in such places. But he can no longer pitch in by collecting scrap metal from the decaying urban frontier now that Bully runs the streets. Bully, an aggro Matt Smith who sits in a plush chair attached to a convertible and screams “look at my muscles” into a microphone as he trawls the naked streets, will allow no competitors in the scavenging business. As Hendricks and Mendelsohn ramp up for a conflict, so do Smith and De Caestecker.
If the plot sounds surreal, that's nothing on the tone, in which there are unexpected cuts to flaming houses, zoos overrun with weeds and abandoned public housing. Hendricks, a classic vision of beauty dressed to the nines as always, is like a being from another world. It's clear that nothing here is meant to be taken at face value, that heavy symbolism is at work, but amidst all the highly art-directed specificity there are moments of documentary-style naturalism. The blend is rather effective.
Gosling is clearly under the spell of his recent master Nicolas Winding Refn. The color saturated rooms (resembling the work of artist James Turrell) just drip cool, and when the electronic music kicks in it's like an outtake from “Only God Forgives” or “Drive.” This film isn't nearly as violent – nor does it have the same nihilism. It's still angry, but the thread that family can conquer all is the persisting theme.
Even though the drive to save the family ranch is what kicks things in gear, we're reminded via a film strip that family makes the home, not location. At first this notion is presented scornfully – it was used as propaganda when a dam flooded part of the town – but our characters ultimately realize the sentiment is legit, even if the source is questionable. Unfortunately, it takes an awful lot of craziness to get to that point – and many audience members may react to the film with an indignant “that's it?!?!?” But when a Hollywood A-lister's first film shoots for the stars but lands on the moon, it's still worth being grateful. Ryan Gosling wanted to make an art film and, despite some dull patches, pretty much succeeded. There's more to him than just “lookin' at his muscles.”
SCORE: 6.9 / 10