Ryan Gosling is more than just a cinematic hunk. He’s tagged in with a lot of different genres, from the rom-com to the musical to the thriller. The guy seems to have taken a lesson from working in multiple areas and with multiple highly-talented directors. in 2012 a rumbling spread through the internet about a film he’d made titled Lost River. It was supposed to be a surrealist dark fantasy, and I head Matt Smith was cast as a villain. This was especially wild for me as I only knew him as The Doctor, so naturally the I got interested. What we got is a fascinating kaleidoscope, each idea pieced together from one of Gosling’s influences.
The kicker? It’s pretty damn wild, and I love it. Why do I love it? Because when it was released in 2014 it was exactly the film I would have made.
Lost River is a surrealist fantasy film about a small family: mother Billy (Christina Hendricks) and her two sons, Bones (Ian De Caestecker) and Franky (Landyn Stewart). Billy winds up working with Cat (Eva Mendes) at a cabaret club owned by Dave (Ben Mendelsohn), a banker with questionable intent. Bones and Franky are plagued by Bully (Matt Smith), a bald sociopath that torments them relentlessly. Bones has a sweet relationship with Rat (Saoirse Ronan), and together they are attempting to break a supposed curse on the neighbor hood that will allow them all to escape.
This sounds like a load of on-the-nose bullshit, a pile I’m not denying. It plays as a dramatic thriller, but the world has more in common with Henry James The Turn of the Screw or Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland than it does anything else. Lost River is painted as a surrealist horror film, one that looks like Scott M. Fischer filtered through Nicolas Wendig Refn’s blue-and-pink color palette. Curses created by dinosaurs at a carnival, all sunk beneath toxic water in this crumbling Detroit neighborhood, are blamed for the plague that has fallen on the land. This is perpetuated by Saoirse Ronan’s character, one that serves as both childlike romantic interest to Ian De Caestecker’s character and as a soothsayer. Gosling wasn’t worried about bluntness or pretention, but rather on building an internal mythology that is indiscernible from an angry fairy tale. This work wouldn’t feel out of place in a tome from the Brothers Grimm, regardless of what it appears to be onscreen.
Ben Mendelsohn definitely steals the entire show. He gets a musical number, serenading a terrified Christina Hendricks with the song “Cool Water” (Bob Nolan, 1936), a track telling a story about a man and his mule searching for more than mirage in the desert. He later locks her in a container used in strip shows as he dances sensuously around her, all right after insinuating that he is entitled to sex as payment for employment. His character is reprehensible, but it was one of the earliest times American cinema got to experience Mendelsohn as something full of malice and hatred. His whole persona is nothing but toxic, hateful privilege and I applaud him for being able to embody that without having to be tongue-in-cheek about it.
This was also the first time I saw Saoirse Ronan onscreen, an actress I more and more believe we exist to live in awe of. Her turns in Greta Gerwig’s films Lady Bird and Little Women are nothing short of inequitable to most of her peers, but she began early alongside Ryan Gosling to make this sweet character. Now do I love her even more because I’m a fan of pet rats (she has one in the film)? Yes. Does that negate her performance here? Absolutely not.
Gosling worked with Nicolas Windig Refn on Drive and Only God Forgives, who films that are painted in bright neon and electronic soundtracks. The two remained friends and Refn’s influence is felt through the entirety of Gosling’s film. It’s a huge part of why I love the film so much, being a fan of the two films these men collaborated on and seeing my own creative works through that lens for quite some time.
That’s part of why I wound up adoring this film. Sometimes I look at something imperfect and see it for what it is; a passionate little film that made me want to explore further into American cinema. Gosling hasn’t had another chance at bat, but I sincerely hope that we one day get another film from him. I love these directors wearing their influences and passions on their sleeves, putting everything onscreen despite how weird and uncommercial it is. We need to celebrate this kind of work, supporting creatives and pushing our movies to be this personal. It’s a thing of magic and moonlight, beyond anyone else’s total understanding, and that strangely unsettling world is a place I’d like to visit more regularly. Gosling’s vision reminds me of other films like Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth or Panos Cosmatos’s Beyond the Black Rainbow. Seek out films and filmmakers like this, and journey into these weird places with me.