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Fitz!? Izzat you!?

So Ryan Gosling wrote and directed a surrealist horror-fantasy movie (light on the fantasy, really) called Lost River. Because Gosling has sort of this profile of decent guy but artsy and aloof, so too follows the general reception of his first film. Is Lost River artsy? Yes. But is it aloof? Fuck no. And besides, it’s artsy in the dangerous, slick, sexy custom of Nicholas Winding Refn films, of which this one will immediately remind you. Is this a bad thing, the kind of association that makes this movie feel derivative or something? Again, fuck no.

Lost River is a moody, textural fairy tale that closely follows the Campbellian Hero’s Journey but wrapped in such an effective and alluring presentation that the minimalist story and dialogue become secondary to atmosphere. People who don’t dig atmospheric films probably won’t like this much. At the same time, I hope that the visuals (amazing) and music (doubly so) are enough to keep people interested. Plus, there’s enough weird shit going on here that the movie is automatically compelling in spite of itself. This is my kind of movie though, and it feels a lot like stuff like Beyond the Black Rainbow or Under the Skin in terms of its cinematic priorities and approach. Is it as good as those films? Maybe not, I’m not sure, but it definitely deserves to be spoken of in the same breath. Likewise with Winding-Refn’s films, where Lost River most closely resembles Only God Forgives and Valhalla Rising. 

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Ben Mendelsohn, never stop being great in everything.

Billy (Christina Hendricks) is a single mother of a very young son and one who is probably 18 or over, Bones (Iain De Caestecker). Bones wants nothing more than to get the fuck out of Lost River, the dying town that his mother has tethered them to, for better or worse… but mostly worse. Billy grew up in their large, dilapidated house that she can’t let go of. But there’s no money, because the whole town (and by implication, the whole country) is falling the fuck apart. All that’s left are wierdos, dreamers, predators, and people trapped by things they can’t let go of.

Bones, trying to fix his car in pursuit of his escape, runs afoul of a local insane asshole called Bully (Matt Smith) who literally cuts the lips off the faces of people who poach the abandoned buildings of their leftover copper. Anyone familiar with the advancing rates of urban collapse and infrastructure decay in North America will recognize the practice of “stripping” houses for valuable materials, which can then be sold for whatever the material is worth. Vice did a pretty good segment on it, but I digress.

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The film is a bleak mirror held up to the mortgage crisis and income inequality issues plaguing the vulnerable parts of the U.S.

Billy meets with a bank manager, Dave (Ben Mendelsohn) to attempt to keep her house. He tells her, in coarse and surreal terms, just how fucked she is. But he offers her a job. The job is one of the heavy bits of weirdness that infuses Lost River. Dave, later, explains that he sets up a chapter of his macabre nightclubs in every hopeless town he passes through. The attraction is a series of grotesque shows that titillate with reflective or overt violence, sprinkled with the kind of cabaret stuff we might expect more readily in the real world. Cat (Eva Mendes) introduces Billy to this world, where she is both empowered and extremely vulnerable because of Dave, who is just another predator.

Meanwhile, Bones gets closer with Rat (Saorise Ronan), a neighbor who like him is tethered to Lost River by family. Her grandma (Barbara Steele) is trapped in the past, reliving her wedding night endlessly in the post-apocalyptic surroundings of both her house and her community. While running from Bully and his henchman, Bones discovers streetlights rising up out of a lake. Sometime in the past, a neighbouring town was drowned to form a reservoir, and rumor of a curse laid on the whole of Lost River followed. Rat explains this is why everything in Lost River also feels underwater.

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The film choose symbolism over subtlety.

Bones and his mother both experience a subtextual but well-defined heroic arc. The nodes of this are present, but not obligatory or lazy, and each of the two characters experiences different parts. Humble origins, call to adventure, boons and even (potentially) supernatural aid. As his life gets more desperate, watching his mother succumb to desperation and therefore predation, Bones becomes willing to believe in Rat’s curse… even as it is she who suffers the most at the hands of Bully, and pretty much on Bones’s behalf.

The presence of the classic tropes of a hero’s journey is probably why people describe Lost River as a fantasy film. It’s actually fairly grounded in reality, with only a slight yet insistent undertone of magical realism. The quest Bones undertakes to break the curse is about bringing something back from the drowned city. That quest feels a lot like the kinds of quests young knights might have undertaken in children’s stories and fairy tales. And of course, there’s a monster at the end.

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The Shell is one of the attractions at Dave’s nightclub, and one of the more unsettling ideas in the film.

It’s easy to think, watching this movie, that it’s going to remain relentlessly bleak or tragic. This kind of disposition would be understandable but ultimately misguided. There are moments of stirring visual beauty, and the very innocent and soft nature of the love story (which is not pronounced really) between Bones and Rat belies the darkness overlaying everything else. But the real redemption of the movie’s tone is that both Bones and his mother ultimately make heroic stands against the forces in their lives which want to hurt or kill them. In the end, it’s not about how creepy or terrible this world is. It’s about catharsis when its inhabitants manage to defend their tiny pocket of light.

And the thing is, the movie really earns that catharsis. The stuff stacked against these characters is only symbolically as dire and dramatic as dragons or tyrants, but ultimately a lot more unsettling for us since its human evils like greed, rape, violence, and hatred that we see perpetrated around us all the time. Gosling brings all this to life because he has a keen eye for the kinds of atmospherically horrifying elements that can easily be punctuated with a visual or a character to hit home harder than a hundred fucking jump scares.

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Case in point: this guy, this shot.

Inasmuch as Lost River does the always welcome “good story well told”, it’s superlative qualities are going to be more tactile than whatever I could say about the plot or themes. While watching the movie, even if it’s a clip or well-cut trailer, you’re getting a pretty goddamn good dose of what makes it special. Like I said, it’s about atmosphere which are created not only by storytelling, but by visual and auditory panache. Gosling has learned from some of the best out there, and while this movie feels like it draws most from Winding-Refn, there are touches of something else lurking just beneath the surface. Right now I kind of think that something else is hope. I wouldn’t characterize Winding-Refn’s films as hopeful. At best, they come to resolutions where the despair and the hero can part ways.

There’s something more bright at the center of Lost River, which says that we can overcome adversity (even if it means throwing dinosaur heads through windshields) and move on from the things that drag us down, oppress us, and threaten us.

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Sometimes the path will even appear!

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