I tend to think it a pretty rare thing for anything good to come from an actor deciding to take a seat behind the director’s chair, as the results tend to be rather lackluster. Acting and directing require very different skill sets, and often what makes actors great is their knowledge of themselves and how they best can serve a role, an attitude often at odds with the more universal perspective necessary in a director. Enter Ryan Gosling with his freshman attempt at writing and directing, Lost River. And you know what? He has potential. This just isn’t the film in which it gets to shine.
The film follows the lives of a family in Detroit, about to have their house foreclosed upon and destroyed by their mortgaging bank. The story follows two divergent moneymaking ventures by family members. First we have Bones (played by Ian De Caestecker, whom some may recognize from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) searching for scrap to sell, only to be hounded by the self-professed overlord of the scrap trade, the aptly named Bully (Matt Smith, in a role about as vulgarly far removed from The Doctor as I can imagine). The other tale follows Billy (Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks), Bones’s mother, who begins working in the bank manager’s club in a gore-centric form of burlesque, subjecting herself to the discomforts of the audience’s gaze as she plays at mutilating herself for their amusement.
Gosling has a real eye for making his scenes vibrant and surreal, blending visual and auditory stimuli to make us question the reality of what we’re seeing. There is clear homage here to the works of David Lynch, the most obvious being Blue Velvet. The homage is so striking, in fact, that it almost crosses the line into plagiarism, replicating shots and motifs with such reverence that it feels derivative. It’s generally normal for young directors to try to replicate the styles of their idols, and while Gosling certainly has good taste in cinema, he tries so hard to be David Lynch that his film loses any sense of identity.
This is further exacerbated by the fact that the film doesn’t have much of a plot. It teases its audience with some commentary on the predatory lending practices that led to the housing bubble collapse, which is already an observation that has come a few years too late, but the film goes on to not have much to say on it. Both Bones’s and Billy’s stories have their share of bizarre visual delights and tense moments, but by the end of the film, both of their conflicts are individually resolved, they reunite, and nothing is really learned or gained from their experiences. The primary conflict of their housing crisis isn’t even addressed, leaving the introductory plot thread conspicuously dangling as they shrug and ride into the sunset. Combine this with the fact that these actors barely have characters to play beyond the barest archetypes, and what is an initally visually appealing movie becomes thematically and narratively dull.
Ryan Gosling may give up on his directorial pursuits given the negative response this film has received from critics. I for one, though, would like to see where he can steer this creative energy. Sure, this first film is a dud, but the problems are easy enough to fix. The biggest problem is likely Gosling’s lackluster screenplay, but with some fresh outside material and a bit more of an exploration into a unique visual style, he may have what it takes to make something of himself. Unfortunately, Lost River is not the film that’s going to get people interested.