Drive, he said...
Film is a collaborative art. But there’s still one job you can legitimately do alone with no qualifications, if there’s nobody to stop you. Unfortunately, it’s the foundation all great cinema’s based on: screenwriting.
Ryan Gosling is a man of many talents: a fine actor (Half Nelson) who makes creditably leftfield choices (Lars And The Real Girl) and who’s not afraid to whip out his ukulele (Blue Valentine) at a moment’s notice. What he’s not, as his debut as writer/director glaringly shows, is a wordsmith.
Inspired by his time shooting The Ides Of March in Detroit, the go-to zone for cinematic ruin (see Only Lovers Left Alive and It Follows), Lost River is set in a deserted American town where single mom Billy (Christina Hendricks) lives with her sons, toddler Franky (Landyn Stewart) and teenage Gosling stand-in Bones (Iain De Caestecker).
To scrape by, Bones strips copper from abandoned buildings and Billy takes a seedy club gig from her bank manager, Dave (the ever-creepy Ben Mendelsohn). Meanwhile, Bones is menaced by local bully Bully (Matt Smith) and Saoirse Ronan plays love interest Rat (she has a beloved pet rodent, hence the name); the scene where Bully enquires if anyone’s ever stroked Rat’s rat is a comedy meme-in-waiting.
For half an hour, you have no clue what you’re watching. Is it Malickian myth-making, a Lynchian bad trip, or Refn-style violent revenge? Then you realise Gosling has no idea either – or, rather, he has a glut of ideas he hasn’t bothered to fashion into anything approaching a coherent story. At least his colleagues are working overtime.
Cinematographer Benoît Debie (Spring Breakers) brings his trademark neon lustre, composer Johnny Jewel (Drive) adds another iconic electro score to his CV and the actors are uniformly impressive, particularly Mendelsohn, who bursts into song for the film’s one transcendently odd moment (borrowed from Blue Velvet).
Perhaps Gosling should just have made a music video first. Neither the disaster Cannes critics described nor anything you’d actually want to sit through, Lost River is a series of cool-looking but clangingly empty vignettes; a film with nothing to say and endless, endlessly striking ways to not say it. Gosling has potential as a director but there must be a million scripts out there more deserving of his time. Maybe next time he’ll ask for help where he needs it.