To save themselves from the threat of eviction from an ethereal post-financial collapse Detroit, single-mother Billy (Christina Hendricks) and her son Bones (Iain de Caestecker) must both resort to extreme measures in order to find money to protect themselves. Billy reluctantly takes a job in a macabre horror/burlesque club where performers enact elaborate self-harm performance pieces under the stewardship of sinister and lecherous Dave (Ben Mendelsohn). Meanwhile Bones and his friend Rat (Saoirse Ronan) get hunted by the local bully – imaginatively named ‘Bully’ (Matt Smith) – whilst trying to repeal a curse put on the town connected to a abandoned town flooded after an artificial river was created. (Huh?)
Yet even though Billy and Bones are literally related and similarly trying to survive desperate circumstances, Lost River is basically two completely separate stories loosely based on survival from poverty and escaping threatening power hungry villains – they are like the final intertwining narrative arcs of a TV drama coming together in the final episode. What might appear dreamy and David Lynch-esque to some viewers to me just felt like a bunch of stuff was happening on screen with little evidence of a finished shooting script.
If you approach Lost River as two separate narratives depicting two separate versions of despair and poverty then it is easier to make judgments on the two stories. Put bluntly, the story with Billy and the horror burlesque club is compelling and dark and visually interesting, whereas the storyline with Bones and the magic river and a cursed elderly mute and the bully named Bully with a sadistic love of scissors is just plain awful.
The allusion of a post-recession Detroit ‘submerged’ underwater is an obvious enough metaphor about financial mismanagement and the catastrophic effects of capitalism. But to include a level of magic realism about a curse that needs to be lifted, accompanied with some of the worst dialogue I have ever heard at the cinema from a supposedly art-house film (sorry, Saoirse), is just crass beyond belief.
Increasingly as I was watching Lost River, I couldn’t shake a nagging thought from my head: That all the most striking imagery was clearly filmed by the second unit. The cutaways and pans across the urban sprawl of bankrupt Detroit were hypnotizing and poignant, whereas the main scenes with Gosling behind the camera lacked discipline and flare.
There is no denying that Matt Smith is an amazing actor, yet could surely have done a better job with a more experienced voice behind the camera. There is a moment of intense violence that gets edited to a series of jump cuts with Smith wailing filmed in various close ups that made the whole audience in the cinema I watched it in laugh out loud (those who hadn’t literally fallen asleep…though to be fair it was during the day and they were old.) And an unexpected dance scene with Mendelsohn in a latter scene in the movie is so outrageous that I wondered whether Gosling was just taking the piss after all…
However, I did not hate this movie. There were enough beautiful shots to lure me in and keep me entertained, and Billy’s story (what should have been the whole movie) was just dark and ludicrous enough to enjoy. Yet where Gosling’s other divisive movie suggested that only God forgives, it seems that most audiences and critics might not be so kind…