Ryan Gosling’s Bizarre Directorial Debut, ‘Lost River,’ Features Sadism, Warlords, and Rat Murder

The Oscar-nominated heartthrob’s first effort behind the camera received a critical thrashing at Cannes, but is it really that bad?

Alastair Grant/AP

At Tuesday evening’s premiere of Lost River, Ryan Gosling’s feature filmmaking debut, Cannes’s artistic director Thierry Frémaux rolled his eyes in mock frustration. The elfin Frenchman was attempting to introduce visiting dignitaries and the movie’s cast and crew, but most of the audience ignored him, preferring to gawk at or take iPhone photos of the celebrity auteur.

“Look at me!” yelled Frémaux.

The stargazing was an unusual happenstance at the film festival’s “Un Certain Regard” sidebar, where the fare tends to lean toward esoteric European, Asian, and—on rarer occasions American—art movies by filmmakers known only to hard-core cinephiles. When the closing credits rolled, Gosling and his star Christina Hendricks basked in the audience’s rapturous applause. Amusingly enough, the adoring throngs seemed totally oblivious to what Variety bluntly termed the “critical drubbing” Lost River received after it was screened for the press several hours before.

This sort of cognitive dissonance underlines Cannes’s cheerfully schizophrenic agenda: The public is famished for stars, no matter how silly or pretentious their efforts may be, and the press gleefully sharpens their knives and proves most vitriolic when celebrities like Gosling or Nicole Kidman (whose wan impersonation of Grace Kelly sank Grace of Monaco, the opening night biopic) fall on their faces. There’s apparently no middle ground between slavish adulation and the critics’ desperate attempts to out-snark each other.

Lost River is indeed something of a fiasco, but without the harsh spotlight offered by Cannes it would just be another mediocre movie dismissed as a vanity project that resembles, say, one of James Franco’s weaker directorial efforts. Gosling’s misbegotten stab at prestige art cinema is not without a smidgen of perverse entertainment value; if you can imagine outtakes from David Lynch, Dennis Hopper, Mario Bava, Nicolas Winding Refn, Gasper Noe, and Harmony Korine whipped up in a Cuisinart, you’ll have a fairly good approximation of the movie’s visual style and lofty artistic aspirations.

Lost River is what pseudo-hip critics invariably term a “whatsit” and, if nothing else, Gosling and his talented cinematographer Benoît Debie (Enter the Void, Spring Breakers) deliver some weirdly diverting moments. The setting is a surreal variant of modern-day Detroit—a haunted, post-industrial wasteland where boarded up houses are regularly consumed by mysteriously set fires and an insane warlord named Bully (Matt Smith) roams the streets atop a convertible while shrieking, “This is my fucking city!” Meanwhile, Billy (Hendricks) and her two sons—teenaged Bones (Iain de Caestecker) and kid brother Franky (Landyn Stewart)—are in danger of losing their precious house. To stave off creditors, Billy has no choice but to succumb to the demands of Dave (Ben Mendelsohn), a lascivious banker who insists she quit her waitressing job and work at a popular Grand Guignol-style nightclub where the performers delight the audience with simulated self-mutilation. Cat (Eva Mendes) is the star attraction, even though Billy quickly proves adept enough to compete with this temptress and peel off layers of viscera with studied nonchalance.

It must be said that there is something charming about Gosling’s utter lack of subtlety. To drive home the fact that Bones’ Platonic love interest, played by the lovely Saoirse Ronan, is a doomed heroine, he names her “Rat” and unceremoniously has her adorable pet rat Nick killed off at an opportune moment. To illustrate that the predatory Dave is a truly ingenious sadist, not merely an ordinary sleazebag, the wayward banker spirits Billy off to the club’s basement where he shrink-wraps her in a hard plastic shell and proceeds to gyrate before her quasi-mummified body. And, in a wacky homage to Mario Bava, onetime scream queen Barbara Steele, the star of Bava’s classic horror movie Black Sunday, plays Rat’s traumatized grandmother. Lost River’s game of spot-the-allusion will no doubt appeal to fans of rarefied cult fiction and cinema. Is the subterranean, waterlogged city Bones explores a tribute to J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World? Is the macabre club where Mendes and Hendricks punch the clock a reworking of Mulholland Drive’s “Club Silencio”? Even though it might be difficult to care, there’s innocuous fun to be had in disentangling Gosling’s regurgitation of postmodernism’s greatest hits.

At times, Gosling appears to have weightier concerns in mind. It’s possible that Lost River is intended as some sort of opaque critique of the subprime mortgage crisis or an indictment of the devastating effects of climate change. On the other hand, hints at topicality are probably red herrings. Like Thierry Frémaux, Gosling is, in the final analysis, doing little more than imploring his audience: “Look at me!”