There's no bigger way for a movie star to paint a giant target on their back than by stepping behind the camera. More often than not, an actor making their directorial debut gets to do more or less whatever they want, and without anyone telling them no, the results can be indulgent and self-serving—there are more films like Mark Ruffalo's "Sympathy For Delicious" than Charles Laughton's "Night Of The Hunter." And far be it from Ryan Gosling to upset that particular narrative.
The "Drive" star's first feature as director, "Lost River," premiered in the Un Certain Regard sidebar at Cannes, and has seemingly already passed into Croisette legend as a "Southland Tales"-style disaster. That's not entirely unfair, as the film is an indulgent mess and then some. But it's not a dull mess, and this writer at least found some pleasures to salvage from it, mostly of the audio-visual variety.
Set in the town of the title, built on the banks of a reservoir that flooded another town, in an indeterminate time, it centers on single mother Billy (Christina Hendricks) who lives in a dilapidated house with sons Bones (Iain De Caestecker) and Frankie (Landyn Stewart). Behind on her mortgage payments and about to lose her home, she quits her job as a waitress and accepts a position at a strange club run by her bank manager, Dave (Ben Mendelsohn). Bones, meanwhile, is trying to help out by stripping houses of copper wire, but while doing so falls foul of local psychopath Bully (Matt Smith), who has a propensity for chopping off people's lips with scissors. Bully starts to target him, which also puts in danger his neighbor/crush Rat (Saoirse Ronan), who lives across the street with her Miss Havisham-ish grandma (Barbara Steele).
This all makes the film sound a little more "ordinary" than it really is. From the first frames, with ruined suburban houses and '50s tunes on the soundtrack, it's clear that Gosling used to write David Lynch's name on his pencil case. The director's influence can be felt almost everywhere, from the psychopathic bad guys (Mendelsohn even quotes Dennis Hopper in "Blue Velvet" at one point) to the Silencio-style club where Hendricks starts working.
In general, Gosling as director wears his influences on his sleeve. Much of the photography, some of the imagery, and all of the violence is borrowed from his work with Nicolas Winding Refn, there are some surreal, unexplained horror touches that feel like Dario Argento, and the post-Katrina vibe, fable-ish magic realism and use of seemingly non-professional actors in supporting roles makes it feel a little like "Beasts Of The Southern Wild," just with a bunch of white people. It's an unruly mash-up of things that Gosling digs, without much original thought to it.
Or, really, much real thought at all. It's a pretty shallow film, undeniably pretty, but without much beneath the surface. Again, that could be said of Gosling's team-ups with Refn, but in those pictures, the form became the substance. Here, Gosling's not in command of his craft enough for that to be the case. However, for all the flaws, of which there are many, the film does show that Gosling has some promise as a filmmaker. It's extraordinarily pretty, for one, thanks to the work of "Enter The Void"/"Spring Breakers" photographer Benoît Debie, and some truly impressive locations. Gosling clearly has a fine eye, and there's some truly striking and haunting imagery here, not all of which is borrowed from other places.
And given how many ideas are flung at the wall, some of them do stick, with something called The Shelf being memorably creepy, as are other elements of the Club (including Hendricks' gruesome on-stage performance). The cast is pretty solid too. De Caestecker, channeling his director, acquits himself decently, as does Ronan, while the bad guys are having tons of fun. Smith, cast effectively against type, uses his unique, gawky screen presence to make Bully a much more interesting thug than the name might suggest, and Mendelsohn is the best thing in the movie by a mile, particularly when he gets to sing (a cover of Hank Williams' "Cool Water") or dance (a hypnotic, deeply menacing moment).
The film is ultimately kind of juvenile and dumb, and there are more moments where you'll roll your eyes rather than inwardly applauding. And given the talent assembled, the emptiness at its center only makes it feel like more of a waste. But it does look great, it does sound great (the score, by "Drive" soundtrack contributor Johnny Jewel, is one of the film's best elements), and can be fitfully interesting. Thus, it's not a particularly auspicious debut for Gosling, but not one that suggests he should always stick to the day job, either. [C-]