CANNES -- Ryan Gosling has made a concentrated effort to escape his origins in show business, and little wonder. His own personal artistic sensibilities seem to be miles away from the kiddie fare that he appeared in, or "The All-New Mickey Mouse Club." Little by little, as he's been able to pick and choose the roles he wants to play, he has pushed towards darker and moodier work, often collaborating with very strong, challenging filmmakers. Commercial appeal seems to be one of the last things on his mind, and even so, he's built up a dedicated fanbase.
His first film as a writer and director, "Lost River," had its premiere this afternoon at the Cannes Film Festival as part of the Un Certain Regard section. There are a number of first time directors in the section this year, and in the years that I've been covering this festival, I've come to think of Un Certain Regard as the place where they put the films that are taking chances, that are exercises in voice, that are hard to categorize anywhere else. That would certainly be a fair description of "Lost River," and while I don't believe it works as a whole, it is apparent immediately that Gosling believe wholeheartedly in this world that he's created.
"Lost River" offers up a sad and broken view of a sad and broken place, a town that has been decimated by an economic disaster. The bitter irony is that the town was once part of a major reservoir project, where an old town was flooded and everyone was moved into new and better houses, new prosperity rising from the literal death of what had come before. It didn't work, though, and at this point, almost everyone has moved away, leaving the town to the scavengers. One in particular, Bully (the all-but-unrecognizable "Doctor Who" star Matt Smith), is perfectly willing to use scissors to cut off the lips of anyone who opposes him.
This is the landscape that Bones (Iain De Caestecker, a million miles away from his prissy nervous character on "Marvel's Agents Of SHIELD") must navigate daily. His mother, Billy (Christina Hendricks), is determined to hold onto the house where they live because it was her grandmother's before her, but month by month, that dream is slipping away. Bones helps out watching his little brother Franky (Landyn Stewart) and tries to bring in money when he can by stripping copper pipes out of the hundreds of abandoned houses around them. Trouble is, Bully has started to claim all those houses for himself, and Bones is running out of options.
Ultimately, that's true of everyone in "Lost River." These are people who have no choices to make. Life has caught them up in a current and they are being drowned by it. A young girl named Rat (Saoirse Ronan) lives next door to Bones, and there's something between them, but honestly… what other choices do either of them have? It's not that there's a shallow dating pool. There's none. They are thrown together by geography, not by anything deeper. As Billy struggles to find a financial solution, she goes to her bank and meets the new officer in charge of her loan, the oily Dave (Ben Mendelsohn, who appears to have snorted a healthy serving of Dennis Hopper's Frank Booth before stepping in front of the camera), and the suggestions he has for how she can work off the loan push Billy to make some truly awful decisions.
"Lost River" is frequently an arresting visual experience, and I would expect nothing less from cinematographer Benoit Debie. This is the guy who shot "Spring Breakers" and "Enter The Void," after all. He is a beast of a photographer, and he has enabled Gosling to wrestle this dreamy otherworldly vision of Hell up onto the screen in a way that is undeniably gorgeous and ugly all at once. Likewise, the performances are all dedicated and seem to be part of this same vision that Gosling has. Eva Mendes shows up as a sort of ringleader at a Grand Guignol nightclub where beautiful women are "murdered" onstage each night. Dave turns out to be more than just a banker, as he gets Billy a job at the club and begins to frequent it, determined to find his time to pounce on her. Christina Hendricks does a nice job of etching that tightrope walk between wanting to save her home for her children and trying to keep at least a fingerhold on her own morality.
But if I'm being perfectly frank, if this movie was not made by Ryan Gosling, and if he wasn't able to muscle up the incredible support system he has behind the camera and in front of it, I wouldn't be writing this review, because "Lost River" wouldn't be playing here. If this had been a script by some young writer and he had just gone out trying to find the money for it, he would be sitting at home right now, watching the coverage of Cannes from a distance, upset that no one recognized his own brilliance. It is a first film and it shows. Gosling doesn't stage scenes so much as he drops people into these environments, letting things linger in hopes that some profundity will emerge. As soon as Bully is introduced, you know he's on a collision course with Bones, but it turns out to be the very definition of an anti-climax. Bully has a disturbing henchman named Face (Torrey Wigfield), and his no-lipped look is certainly memorable. But he just sort of wanders out of frame before the end of the film with no real purpose served.
Maybe the single coolest choice Gosling made was casting Barbara Steele, a cult icon known for her work with Mario Bava, as Rat's long-silent grandmother who sits all day, lost in her memories, waiting for a husband who will never return. I was thrilled when Steele showed up, and she does as much as she can with a part that requires her to sit in one place in the same outfit and never speak for the entire film, but if you lifted her out completely, it wouldn't change a thing.
Watching this, it is obvious why Gosling made "Drive" or "Only God Forgives" or why he's drawn to Derek Cianfrance or why he would jump at the chance to work with Terrence Malick. I admire Gosling's dedication to pushing cinema's boundaries, and I am confident that he will continue to do so both with other filmmakers and in any future work he does as a writer/director. But "Lost River" is a beautifully dressed minor effort, a movie in which all the muscle in the world can't transform the thin, thin script into something more.
I sincerely look forward to whatever's next.