The “Lost River” of the title of Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut is actually a submerged series of towns deliberately drowned to make a reservoir and pump new life into Detroit’s doppelganger city sometime back in the 50s or 60s. Locals talk in hushed tones about an evil spell cast when the last town faced the manmade deluge. Only when something from the town is returned to the surface will the curse be broken.
This is another America found in those parallel universe episodes of “The Twilight Zone” or the unfathomable Marvel Multiverse where The Motor City hovers somewhere between Hurricane Katrina and the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. In this version of Detroit buildings burn periodically in slow motion, rotting from the inside out as they are stripped from anything of value like copper piping, a solid fix for the illusionary dollar bills of legend. Graffiti creeps insidiously, covering everything like an urban poison ivy, one piece reads “send in the drones,” and from the state of this ravished wasteland perhaps the government already did.
Negotiating this crumbling Atlantis is Bones, his young brother Franky and his mother Billy. Billy is three months behind with the mortgage and to help Bones scavenges this post apocalyptic wasteland for the fabled copper. In doing so Bones runs the deadly gauntlet laid down by the shaved savage Bully who pronounces from an armchair strapped to the back of his car, “I own this fucking copper!” Bully enjoys the finer things in life like sequined jackets and scissoring the lips off of locals who do him wrong, a visceral financial cut. In one of “Lost River’s” more frightening moments one of Bully’s victims march out of the night like drooling nightmare, literally forced to grin and bear the cruel heart of austerity.
Billy is a subprime poster girl, naïve and well meaning, willing to work hard to keep a roof over the heads of her family. Was she conned into buying a mortgage by her bank manager Carl or should she have read the small print and taken responsibility for her own financial matters? Carl’s replacement, the reptilian Dave has other ideas. His lizard blood only warms from the suffering of the working-class, perhaps that’s why he has to lean so close to hear Billy, heated by her desperate pleas that pour into his one good ear.
Dave hands Billy a get out of jail free card, a job invitation to his sordid cabaret club where the moneyed classes can climax over the poor as they literally bleed on stage for their art. For a bonus Billy can become encased inside a bubble gum iron maiden and subject to Dave’s hideous advances. Even this base level of humiliation isn’t enough for the working-class to save their homes. A new scarlet letter is daubed on Billy’s home, a D for demolition rather than the A for adultery but in this Darwinist economy to cheat on the banks is the ultimate betrayal.
Across the street from Bones and his family is the wistful Rat who serenades the decaying neighbourhood from under a neon light. Rat inhabits a ramshackle house with her grandmother, who lives a Miss Havisham existence watching an old VHS tape recording of her marriage time and time again. Rat has the knack of casting her gaze off in to the middle distance. Perhaps she is fishing for something profound to say to Bones to kick-start their fledgling romance? Or maybe she knows the futility of grinding against a system that has stolen the identity of young adults, fallout from the fiscal dirty bomb that turns them radioactive-a toxic debt that will never be paid back. Rat, Bones and Bully are no longer allowed their given names, as they don’t exist to moneyed America.
The echoes of the critical boos and shouts of derision from Cannes still tumble around the frames of “Lost River” like the ghosts of the American dream haunting a now dead city and you can see why. Gosling’s original voice is stifled, as his direction is too beholden to his recent collaborations with Refn and Cianfrance. His is designs on Lynchian transcendence are too obvious and make you pine for the real thing. Lynch sees the genuine nightmares that lurk behind Americana and maybe Gosling thinks he can read Lynch’s mind. He can’t.
But at least Gosling tries to be Lynch rather than a journeyman director. Somewhere between the laboured dialogue and overblown surrealism is a film that confronts the multi-trillion dollar injustice heaped upon everyday Americans while the shadow of the 1% continues to darken a fair economy or a social good like Obamacare. Gosling’s cast mostly do their best to share his vision, Christina Hendricks is serviceable as Billy, Iain De Caerstecker impersonates his director as Bones, Saoirse Ronan isn’t sure, Matt Smith is impressive as Bully, Eva Mendes could be in “From Dusk Till Dawn” and Ben Mendelsohn continues to remind the audience of Gary Oldman at his best.