It's difficult to discuss "Lost River," the feature debut as writer and director from actor Ryan Gosling, without referencing the film's first appearance nearly a year ago at the Cannes Film Festival. It marked the film, rightly or wrongly, as some kind of grand-scale disaster-piece and so it is just now getting a small-scale theatrical opening alongside a digital release.
Turns out "Lost River" is indeed a mess, but it's the best mess possible, an evocative grab-bag of images and moods with a heartfelt sincerity and conflicting impulses of romantic melancholy and hardscrabble hopefulness.
The story concerns a family trying to hold onto their home as others around them are being burnt out or torn down. Billy (Christina Hendricks) struggles to provide for her two sons and a sketchy bank manager Dave (Ben Mendelsohn) points her toward a job at a nightclub cabaret run by Cat (Eva Mendes). Billy's older boy Bones (Iain De Caestecker) runs afoul of local thug Bully (Matt Smith) over copper scavenged from abandoned buildings, while a neighbor girl Rat (Saoirse Ronan) finds herself caught between them. Shot amidst the crumbling architecture of Detroit, the film at times smacks of poverty tourism in a disconcerting way.
Gosling, who does not appear in the film, is concerned more with vibes and feelings than straightforward storytelling, which is what makes the film often feel unformed. There are hints at a relationship between Hendricks' working mom and the cab driver (Reda Kateb) who shuttles her around town that teases just enough you want it to be explored more completely.
De Caestecker simply doesn't have enough screen presence to stand up to everything going on around him, and so the film often loses its center in scenes based on Bones. Mendelsohn steals every moment he's in with an unsettling mix of sleaze, grace and aggression.
Among Gosling's sharpest choices was working with Belgian cinematographer Benoît Debie, who also shot "Spring Breakers" and "Enter the Void," and the film is at its best and most alive when it goes full-weirdo, leaving behind any pretext to naturalism for a deeply saturated, color-soaked look. There are arresting and indelible images, mostly around the Grand Guignol inspired nightclub with its bizarre peep-show basement. The tops of streetlights partially submerged underwater break the surface like slim-necked beasts, urban Loch Ness monsters.
The pulsing, evocative score by Johnny Jewel, whose music also featured prominently in the Gosling-starring "Drive," is a similarly smart addition. The film's overall interest in mixing horror movie aesthetics and a childish, dream-like whimsy is in line with Gosling's musical project known as Dead Man's Bones, which once put on shows at a Los Angeles marionette theater with a children's choir.
There has long been a sense that if only Ryan Gosling the actor would just settle down he could be a proper big time box office movie star, but his tastes and inclinations seem too willful and eccentric for that. Whether he directs again or this becomes a one-off like efforts by Johnny Depp, Marlon Brando and Edward Norton , "Lost River" feels like a summation of his preoccupations in its fable-like naiveté and intersection of the fantastical, the absurd and the romantic.
On a conventional set of scales "Lost River" is decidedly light, while on another it is more than worth its weight in the oddball Americana of old TVs, junker cars, copper piping and paper mache. Gosling obviously values the currency of one over the other, and it's not hard to feel we are the richer for it.
MPAA rating: R, for disturbing violent images, language and some sexual content
Running time: 1 hour and 45 minutes
Playing: At the Sundance Sunset Cinemas