|Iain De Caestecker stars as Bones in Lost River, the directorial debut of actor Ryan Gosling.|
Horror films have long gotten mileage from fear of the unknown. Terror is derived from monsters lurking in the shadows or hiding under the bed or from the creeping sense of dread for what may come or what is already here. Uncertainty is powerful, and sometimes, anticipation alone can be too much to bear. From one moment to the next, we can never be sure whether we are safe or whether something wicked is waiting for us just around the corner.
In some cases, however, the most frightening demons are standing in front of us and hiding in plain sight. Popular wisdom suggests you cannot fight what you cannot see, but what about the enemies everyone sees but refuses to acknowledge? It is hard enough to run from trouble, but escape can prove impossible if your obstacles sit directly in your path to safety.
Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut Lost River is about a great many things, but mostly it is concerned with the ways our lives, our loves, and our dreams can be stolen out from under us in full view of a world that would rather just look away. There is nothing to inoculate us against the menacing forces that seek to cause harm, and the only true security is that which we provide for ourselves.
Fairly or unfairly, there is nowhere in America now that better exemplifies this milieu than Detroit, where Lost River is set and was filmed. Gosling uses the ghosts of the real world to add gravity to the story of a family struggling to survive and desperately clinging to a dream that has clearly transformed into a nightmare for so many others. The opening scene of the movie features a man hurriedly loading his things into a truck and telling the film’s teenage protagonist to get out while he can – easy advice from a man whose bags are already packed.
Lost River tells the parallel stories of Billy (Christina Hendricks from Mad Men and Drive) and her son Bones (Iain De Caestecker of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.). Single mother Billy, who has a toddler-aged son in addition to Bones, is trying to keep a roof above her family’s head, but she has fallen behind on her house payments thanks to a bad loan of the kind that led to the sub-prime mortgage crisis. She has no money and no way out but is offered a job by a sinister banker who has come to town to clean up the mess his predecessors left behind.
Bones spends his days gutting homes that have been abandoned and salvaging whatever copper he can to sell. His nights are spent with the neighbor girl, Rat, played by Saoirse Ronan and so named because of her pet rat, though the name could be just as reflective of her place in society. Bones’ activities cause him to run afoul of the self-appointed neighborhood gangster, who deals with agitators by cutting their lips off on the first offense. Presumably, no one dares commit a second offense.
The banker, played by the magnificent Ben Mendelsohn (The Dark Knight Rises, The Place Beyond the Pines), opens a club on the outskirts of town. He tells Billy he has done this in each of the “lost rivers” he has visited. Billy’s job offer consists of simulating self-mutilation on stage for the club’s wealthy clientele. The banker calls it a release for his customers, which it is, but it is also the manifestation of all their impotent rage over what the financial crisis has done to them. For them, this is the next best thing to lashing out in violence.
Meanwhile, Bones discovers a town completely submerged in water, one result of a nearby dam project. The town is so frozen in time that it even features dinosaurs, albeit as part of a prehistoric theme park that once existed there. Rat obsessively views an old educational film reel that was seemingly used to dupe the townspeople into believing the dam would be good for them, while her grandmother is also frozen in time with her own film. Her husband died during the construction of the dam, and she has not spoken since, preferring instead to sit in silence and watch her wedding video over and over.
The grandmother is played by Barbara Steele, a great actress from a number of classic Italian and American horror films. Her presence alone is an homage to some of Gosling’s influences, and much of the film is clearly inspired by the work of Nicolas Winding Refn and Derek Cianfrance, two directors Gosling has collaborated with multiple times. Both are even name-checked in the acknowledgements in the credits. However, while Gosling’s visual style may not be unique – though the photography by the brilliant and underrated Benoît Debie is sumptuous – his script is a densely layered, tightly woven mini-masterpiece.
As with all great films, nothing feels accidental, and even incidental moments are packed with meaning, both in the moment and for future events. Though ideas of right and wrong have lost their meaning in Gosling’s grotesque creation, there is a clearly defined sense of fatalism, in that the wrongs we perpetrate almost inevitably are revisited upon us. Billy, Bones, and Rat are good people trapped in a place with no future, only shadows of the past.
They cling to the lives they have because this is all they have ever known, but the world has conspired to tear all of that apart. Something is coming for them, be it in the form of the town bully, a devious banker, or the universe itself, but something is most definitely coming, so they are forced to choose. They can stand their ground and be destroyed or charge headlong at the monsters moving toward them. They are scared and have every right to be, but when all other roads lead to the slow death of the body and soul, the only choice is to escape.
See it? Yes.