Lost River, Ryan Gosling’s filmmaking debut, made its premiere in the Un Certain Regard sidebar program of the Cannes Film Festival today. Surreal, strange, and heavy on the symbolism, the actor’s first movie as a writer-director is very far from The Notebook. Here are a few things to know about Lost River, which will receive a U.S. release via Warner Bros.:
Lost River is set in a decaying, fictional town that shares the same name as the title, but it was shot in Detroit and has a whole “disintegrating American dream” theme. One character, a nefarious banker named Dave who’s played by Ben Mendelsohn, even says as much, early on. The characters wander through and live in battered neighborhoods filled with abandoned houses and overgrown, refuse-strewn lawns, only occasionally interacting with the apparent local. And everything seems to get set on fire — houses, bicycles, books, cars. Fire is one of neighbor Bully’s (Matt Smith) weapons of choice, and it’s also clearly something Gosling loves the look of, with cinematographer Benoît Debie (who also shot Spring Breakers) capturing it in glorious lushness throughout the film.
As Billy, the Mad Men star is the harried single mother of two boys, the young Franky (Landyn Stewart) and Bones, played by 26-year-old Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. actor Iain De Caestecker. It’s…technically possible for Hendricks to have birthed both, but the casting is one of many indications that gritty realism isn’t one of Lost River’s priorities. Billy’s struggle to hold onto her childhood home after everyone else has fled the neighborhood leads her to take a job in a sinister nightclub owned by Ben and overseen by lead performer Cat (Eva Mendes), who specializes in a kind of gory burlesque.
Dave, the sketchiest character, has the most normal moniker — everyone else has what sounds like a nickname: There’s Billy and Bones (maybe a nod to Gosling’s band?); there’s the girl next door, played by Saoirse Ronan, who’s called “Rat” after her pet of choice (who incidentally has the more standard person name of Nick); and there’s Bully and his maimed henchman Face (Torrey Wigfield). It’s all part of the dreaminess of the story, which is loose, barely there, and pauses for Bully to make pronouncements about how “the only way to live is like a bull” or for a threatening dance number from Dave.
Gosling, who also wrote Lost River, clearly set out to make an honest-to-god art film. In the credits, he thanks, among others, his Blue Valentine director Derek Cianfrance and Terrence Malick, with whom Gosling worked on an upcoming project. But the major influences on his movie appear to be David Lynch and Harmony Korine. Lynch is all over the swoony music choices, the scenes in the club, the lighting, and the way the women in particular are shot. The elliptical storytelling and way the dialogue’s layered over scenes are reminiscent of Korine’s Spring Breakers and others. And the less successful moments with what look to be locals feel like they’re out of Korine’s Gummo or Mister Lonely.
Lost River isn’t the kind of first film that makes you ready to declare someone the next great American director — it’s inchoate, it’s a little indulgent, and it’s crammed with ideas, only some of which are fully realized. But Gosling definitely deserves credit for ambition. This isn’t a talky, actorly drama or a vehicle for Gosling to play a role he’s yet to be cast in — it’s very focused on visuals, and manages some very memorable ones, alongside others that are just strange. As first features go, it’s proof that Gosling’s not interested in making easy choices as a filmmaker, and that deserves both a salute and an eye on what he does next.