It turns out Ryan Gosling isn’t exactly the Baby Goose we thought he was; the charming Canadian whose perpetually bemused come-hither cool fueled fantasy memes, fanfic dreams, and even his own coloring book full of smoldering fill-in-the-blank stares.
The A-lister who made ’em swoon in The Notebook and Crazy, Stupid, Love, and racked up indie cred (and an Oscar nod) in films like Half Nelson and Lars and the Real Girl, had never even uttered the words “Hey girl”—at least, not in public—until last month at SXSW, when he accidentally let it slip in front of Guillermo Del Toro and an audience of adoring fans.
“I’ve never said it,” Gosling revealed in conversation with the Pan’s Labyrinth helmer, sheepishly admitting his unease with being Hollywood’s favorite reluctant hunk. “I understand if you’re in a movie and say something like ‘I’ll be back.’ Then you gotta own it. But I never said this. I only heard about it because some guy on the street came up to me and said, ‘Hey girl.’”
He said it! fans squealed, vindicated in their Gosling worship. But as quickly as it’d happened, so did it fade as the actor-turned-director dove into why he was really there at SXSW, subjecting himself to meme-worthy moments in the service of being taken seriously.
After being eviscerated by snark-happy critics last year in Cannes, Gosling was finally rallying to unleash his directorial debut—a dark fable about American decay set against the ruins of Detroit that finally hits VOD and select theaters this week. With Lost River Gosling has peeled back the curtain on the darker, more macabre Gosling that wasn’t meant for the mainstream.
Enter Ryan Gothling.
Gosling gave the world a glimpse of this introspectively morbid artistic streak in 2009, when he and bandmate Zach Shields released the first eponymous album from their indie/folk rock outfit Dead Man’s Bones just before Halloween. Filling their record with supernatural themes, monster-laden lyrics, haunting melodies, and eerie children’s voices, Dead Man’s Bones earned positive reviews (“lovably weird,” Pitchfork deemed it) before Gosling and Shields took up a brief residency in, appropriately enough, an L.A. puppet theater.
Fast-forward six years through two close collaborations with oddball Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn and a transformative experience in Detroit on a George Clooney movie. Lost River marks not only Gosling’s directorial debut, but also his screenwriting debut—and for better and worse, it’s filled to the brim with heavily deliberate social commentary and loaded imagery influenced by a half-dozen auteur role models, from Refn to David Lynch to Harmony Korine to Dario Argento.
Inspired by trips through a depressed Motor City during the making of Clooney's political drama Ides of March, Gosling’s post-industrial gothic nightmare about American decay is set in the fictional town of Lost River, a crumbling urban wasteland destroyed by economic blight that was once the epitome of the American Dream.
Gosling grew up in nearby Ontario, Canada, but was shocked by the Detroit he saw decades later. “I'm from Canada and I [grew up] not too far from Detroit,” he said. “When you're a Canadian kid, America is a pinup girl you put in your locker. It took me a long time to get to Detroit. I think I got there when I was 30. It's very different from what I had imagined it, and it really affected me.”
It’s here that Gosling’s teenage protagonist Bones (Iain De Caestecker) lives with his little brother and their single mom, Billy (Christina Hendricks, Gosling’s Drive co-star), three of the last remaining holdouts in an increasingly desolate ghost town. Bones starts making eyes at the girl next door, a rat-toting dreamer named Rat (Saoirse Ronan) who lives with a hoarder grandmother long ago rendered mute and heartbroken (played by English scream queen Barbara Steele) by tragedy borne from the boom. Bones also incurs the wrath of a terrorizing local bully named Bully (an unhinged Matt Smith) whose turf he crosses while scrapping for metal in the city’s abandoned buildings.
Meanwhile, Billy takes a job from a leering loan officer (Ben Mendelsohn) to work at a Grand Guignol-esque fetish club, mock-mutilating herself for the pleasure of ravenous spectators. Even Gosling paramour Eva Mendes shows up as the enigmatic grand dame of the theater of the macabre—although it’s Mendelsohn, Gosling’s The Place Beyond The Pines co-star, who steals the movie as the menacingly amoral bank man who not-so-secretly revels in the suffering around him.
Augmented by gorgeous cinematography by Benoit Debie and a tinkling synthy-giallo score by Chromatics’s Johnny Jewel, Gosling’s dread-filled directorial statement plays so much like a fairytale/horror fever dream that Del Toro couldn’t help but compare it to the work of Mario Bava, the maestro of the moody Italian slasher. Gosling fills Lost River with romantic juxtapositions of tremendous beauty and destruction, like the underwater city, flooded years ago in the name of progress, that Bones and Rat build a fantasy around: If a part of the ruins is brought back up to the surface, the curse that’s befallen Lost River and all those in it will be broken.
It’s certainly a bold first film for Gosling, who famously drew boos and pans from critics at Cannes. (But then, who hasn’t?) Almost a year after his disastrous world premiere, Gosling reflected on the haters. “I’ve had other experiences where you try to make something that other people are going to like, and you feel foolish in the end, to pretend to know what that is,” he said at SXSW. “Only you know what you like and want to see, and it’s the only thing—especially if you’re going to direct a film, you have to make like a thousand decisions every day—the only place you can come from is what you gravitate towards, and what works for you.”
The intrepid Gosling has waved off his brutalizing critics by comparing filmmaking to high school, a metaphor that equates Hollywood’s golden boy to the artsy Goth being pounced on by the bullies. “Any time you stick your neck out in high school there’s someone right there to chop your head off,” he told Anne Thompson. As Lost River champion Del Toro put it, boosting Gosling for being true to his inner weirdo: “Use what you are, always as a source of pride, and wear it as a giant ‘Fuck you’ to the world when they tell you that you cannot do something.”