Many actors think they can easily go behind the camera and create their own film. We have seen it time and time again with very mixed results. For every Ben Affleck (Argo) and Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven, Mystic River) giving us some cinematic gems we have the opposite in Eddie Murphy (Harlem Nights) who shows he should stay far away from the Director’s chair. Last year, Ryan Gosling tried his hand at becoming his own auteur with the debut of Lost River. Does this show any promise that Mr. Gosling can become a hot, new commodity as a filmmaker?
Lost River follows a poorly situated family (in a poor analog to Detroit), trying to make ends meet without their home being foreclosed. Right away it is hard not to see that Ryan Gosling, who is also the writer of his debut feature, could have had a hand in understanding what subtly is. Whether it is the obvious messages about poverty or the fall of Detroit to how characters express themselves; nothing about this film is very deep. Gosling also takes a big page from David Lynch by going far out with some of the characters and their situations. A character played by Barbara Steele seems to be taken from an older draft of Blue Velvet.
Another big issue with the script is that there is virtually no conflict. Or rather everything could be easily fixed if these characters could just move on. At least in a film like Beasts of the Southern Wild, which this film is similar with in tone, it has a natural disaster to explain their circumstances. Yes, Detroit as a whole is suffering from an economic freefall; but there still is common sense & law enforcement which most films that take place in this city seems to virtually ignore. The only character that remotely has any common sense is Bully, who Matt Smith seems to be the only one having any kind of fun playing throughout.
The only redeeming thing that can be said about Lost River is that, while Ryan Gosling is copying wholeheartedly from his influences, he definitely has a keen eye as a Director. There are a bunch of gorgeous images throughout the film including a river overtaking a major roadway or the ruined buildings of suburban Detroit. He might not be doing the most original of camera movements or shots (his recent partnership with Nicolas Winding Refn is felt ALL OVER this film) but it at least makes even the blandest of scenes interesting to look at. The only glaring issue is that his constant color scheme of neon or bright colors can be overtly distracting at times. It is one thing for some buildings to have gaudy colors on them but a character literally having a neon nightlight is ridiculous.
This might seem like a harsh review for a first outing but Ryan Gosling needs a bit of a crash course if he continues this route as a filmmaker. He shows promise with some provocative imagery but the rest is mired in complications. Lost River has a meandering plot that could be easily solvable, it wants to be weird when the plot does not call for it, and the characters are just not compelling enough to follow. If a different screenwriter came in, or if Gosling had help from his influences like Nicolas Winding Refn, then something could have been salvaged here. As it stands Lost River is another painful reminder that just because you are an A-list actor it does not mean you can become an A-list filmmaker.