In the end credits of Lost River Ryan Gosling credits three film-makers in a long list of thanks: Nicolas Winding Refn, Derek Cianfrance and Terrence Malick. They are notable mentions because after watching the film, and then seeing their names, there is a noticeable link to all three in Gosling’s debut feature as a director.

Bands often get slated for difficult second albums, and although this is Gosling’s first film we already know him so well from his on screen portrayals that the audience have pre-existing expectations before the opening credits kick in. Debut films don’t often get this much attention or scrutiny but Gosling certainly rises despite the pressure on his back from the get go.

The film revolves around single mother Billy (Hendricks) and her two sons, Bones (De Caestecker) and Franky (Stewart). They live in the titular town of Lost River, filmed on location in the deprived suburbs of Detroit. Billy is falling short on payments for her house and is forced to take a job in a seedy club run by the sinister Dave (Mendelsohn). Bones meanwhile spends his days stripping copper from abandoned buildings and attempting to avoid local psychopath Bully (Smith). His interactions with Bully lead him to the discovery of an underwater town, submerged in an artificial reservoir. It is this discovery, as well as the emotional support of neighbour and apparent love interest Rat (Ronan) that gives Bones the key to his families’ survival and a route to escape from the decaying town.

First and foremost, Lost River is a series of intimate character studies. From the film’s leads to its showcase villains, each is developed on screen in an intricate yet subtle way. Gosling echoes Cianfrance in this aspect, although the cast is large and the plot is multifaceted the brief window of events we glimpse feel founded in a real backstory. It’s through aspects such as Bully’s searing intensity (a character that is a prescription away from normality) and Bones’ desperation. There were stories to be told before Lost River and there will be stories to tell after it, what they are we shall probably never know. The fact that we can imagine them is a huge testament to Gosling’s work. The Place Beyond the Pines was a film that did a similar thing and you can feel Gosling channelling this in his writing and directing.

Lost River is not a film you can settle into, it’s not a narrative you can fully immerse yourself in at any point. It shifts and transforms from minute to minute. For all its social realist portrayals it also steps off the top diving board into a far more surreal and grotesque world. Christina Hendricks’ character is forced by financial worries to take a job in a Grand Guignol horror club, a job that raises moral dilemmas at every turn. These sections of the film feel heavily influenced by Winding Refn (Bronson, Drive and Only God Forgives). From the lighting to the at times over the top depictions of gore, again Gosling is riffing off his former mentor and collaborator. These may be the scenes that saw the film jeered at Cannes but they don’t form the main bulk of the film’s narrative. Yes, they are shocking and stomach turning but they are used in short bursts to add another dimension to the film, to spark it into life before you can relax and let the narrative wash over you: like adding whiskey to coffee.

The final director of note here is Malick, thanked in the credits but notably someone who has never directed Gosling on screen. His unique cinematography seems like Gosling’s starting off point for the film. He spent months before hand in Detroit by himself filming on location, practicing his method and focusing his ideas against a style. Lost River’s real strength lies in its shot construction and framing, its lighting and its attention to form. A very Malick-like trait.

At times Lost River is a thing of beauty far more impressive in its pensive moments than when it is attempting to bowl you over with action.  Bones’ discovery of the underwater town is almost like a series of dream sequences giving the film a third dimension, a magical realist undercurrent. These sequences are bold and confrontational, a fairytale set against a very frightening backdrop of social awareness. Gosling leads a scathing attack on a Government that has let these once great sprawling inner city areas in Detroit fall into decay and disarray. For a Post-Hurricane Katrina audience the damp feel of poverty and abandonment will be all too familiar.

Overall, Lost River may not be the debut feature we may have expected Ryan Gosling to produce. But credit where credit is due, he has not attempted to satisfy anyone other than himself with this film. He is now part of the rare elite of actor/ directors that have the ability to hand pick the projects they want to be a part of and also to create anything they can imagine. The film may have gotten a tough round of reviews after Cannes but surely we should be applauding rather than turning our noses up. Here is a man that started off his career playing hammy roles in rom-coms who now has the power to write his own original screenplays and bring them to screen. Yes, he may wear his influences heavy on his sleeve but these days it can be difficult as a director to be considered a true and original auteur. Gosling is honest enough to nod towards his mentors and also to forge his own path as an independent and impressive director in his own right. It feels like a crazy mash-up of The Place Beyond the Pines, Drive, The Tree of Life and Beasts of the Southern Wild. Lost River isn’t a complete work but it contains the spark of creativity that will surely lead to a masterpiece in the near future. 

[Review by Josh Senior, Curzon Sheffield]

Lost River is available to watch now on Curzon Home Cinema, where you can also watch a Q&A with Ryan Gosling and Matt Smith recorded at Curzon Soho.