A striking image stays with you after seeing Ryan Gosling’s debut, Lost River; the view of a burning home, slowly crumbling towards its earthy foundations, emphasising the dissolution of the pure symbol of the American dream, a family now in search of somewhere else new to once again build upon a new life. This is an image that is constantly in display throughout, homes constantly depicted with a sense of abandonment, bulldozed by the harsh and profiteering bankers, attempting to create a new and thriving future that cares little of those who currently exist in such a landscape.
It was the loss of a town through the intentional flooding during the construction of a local reservoir that many of its residents were forced to evacuate, their demonstration of development have instead caused an unbreakable sense of melancholy to its survivors, a living vessel depicted through the mute and mourning condition of Rat’s (Saoirse Ronan) grandmother, played with haunting effect by Barbara Steele. It is spoken by Rat that such an event came upon them through a spell, affecting both the underwater city and its departed souls, and the struggling middle-class beings that roam and exist in the “surface”.
Among these beings are a family, comprised of Billy (Christina Hendricks) Bones (Iain De Caestecker) and Franky (Landyn Stewart), finding themselves in a position of fear and anxiety as the prospect of their disintegrating but comforting home is going to be stripped from their hands, due to a forceful loan that was swayed upon Billy long ago; living amongst a town that no longer thrives in capitalistic businesses, employment is scarce, existing only are those that tend to the necessities of the living, a trajectory that seems to lead towards a state more primal, thus the secure existence of an underground nightclub that exploits the desires of its consumers of sex, murder, and alcohol; all designed in a cabaret inspired fashion that manages to find a fitting balance that stimulates its audience and instil satisfaction, without pushing them beyond their capacity to act upon impulse, its performers are secured and catered, allowing them to work night after night with passionate pride.
The club is managed by Dave (Ben Mendelsohn), whom works at day as a manager for the local bank, his ability to feed off the desperation of his clients, both at his day and night jobs, allows him to attain what he personally desires; his presence becomes the ultimate villain of such a seedy place, his desire to push the boundaries, often penetrating the sense of space and comfort of his employees, are honed in the experiences felt by Billy, who have taken upon such an opportunity to prevent the potential eviction that would surely fall upon her and her family if there is a lack of a steady income.
In the family’s attempt to maintain a “steady” living, Bones also scavenge the lonely streets of his town for Copper, searching through abandoned schools and houses, breaking their already fragile walls, in the hopes that valuable materials like Copper would be found, which he would then take to be sold to a local buyer; unfortunately, an appropriately named gang leader, Bully (Matt Smith), who claims the town and its Copper as his, naming it Bully-Town; catching Bones in the act, he steals his haul, and re-affirms his dominance. Due to the desperate conditions that Bones and his family are in, he steals back his bag of Copper, although managed to retrieve and escape, he was once again caught in the act, and now he is unable to sell the materials due to the buyer’s fears of harmful repercussions. Bully is now constantly in search, determined to find Bones and possibly cut his lips off, a consequence that was laid upon many that has disappointed Bully since his reign.
The stories all motivate themselves to a finale that is foreseeable in their violent expression, these characters are placed against a world where high morals and efficient law enforcement no longer exists to maintain order and security for its humble characters. Indeed, the only solution is to escape, and as a family unit, plus the inclusion of some, they are now once again in search for hope for the American dream, hoping that such a belief still exist within the modern world.
Although two stories are occurring simultaneously, Gosling manages to cohesively tie them together through the chilling and relentless tone that fill its atmosphere. It is an effort that displays the influences that Gosling had upon production, evidently much of what can be seen are aesthetics of Terrence Malick, Jean-Luc Godard and Nicolas Winding Refn, the former through the kinetic movement of its camera, Godard through its jagged editing — recalling heavily of his own debut film Breathless — and the latter through the neon inspired lighting that evokes further that sense of glossy dread that constantly swallows its characters, much like of what was demonstrated in Refn’s latest film, Only God Forgives. Gosling is able effectively create such an aesthetic due to the personal experiences he had with these directors, collaborating with Refn on two of his previous films and Malick in his upcoming feature, which is currently untitled. Despite this, much room is still present for Gosling to grow upon, with his current style still in its rawer stages, one that has yet find its sliding groove that would pulsate significantly of the deep seeded intentions that he is attempting to convey. Nevertheless, his attempt here is definitely much bolder than many other directors in their debuts.
Lost River may be too abstract and atmospherically uninviting for one to comfortably soak themselves in, but through active effort and welcoming embracement, one shouldn’t find it too difficult to admire Gosling’s take on the crumbling American Dream. Its immediate response to the public has unfortunately been met with shaking heads and frustrated sighs, and potentially have hurt the new filmmaker’s chance to take on a material with a unique expression, possibly having to compromise in his second feature to compensate for the disappointing efforts that was brought here. I truly hope that faith from the studios and the general public can still be found in Gosling’s abilities.