Surrealist Realism in Ryan Gosling’s “Lost River” – An Essay / Review

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Director: Ryan Gosling
Screenwriter: Ryan Gosling
Cast: Christina Hendricks, Iain De Caestecker, Saoirse Ronan, Matt Smith, Eva Mendes, Ben Mendelsohn & Barbara Steele
Runtime: 95 min // Certificate: 15


Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut is a film riddled with all the flaws that you might expect from a first-time director; it’s incomplete, it’s somewhat derivative, and the final act feels disconnected from what comes before it. Nevertheless, for sheer ambition alone, Lost River deserves a maelstrom of praise for one simple reason; beneath the flaws and the overindulgences that bedevil almost every feature length debut, it is a surreal and poetic film that is driven at every turn by a radicalism that is distinctly lacking in mainstream cinema.

The film tells the tale of Bones (De Caestecker; Filth), a teenager living with his mum Billy (Hendricks; Drive) and his younger brother in a backwater, dead-end town in America. Three months behind on the rent and with no opportunities to speak of for miles around, both Bones and Billy are forced to resort to desperate measures just to survive. Enter Dave (Mendelsohn; Starred Up), a bank manager / loan shark who offers Billy a job in the theatre he owns, and Bully (Smith; Christopher and His Kind), a vicious psychopath from whom Bones steals some copper in order to raise enough money to fix his car and escape. As things descend into a real-life nightmare, Bones and his friend Rat (Ronan; Hanna) seek to lift the evil spell that she believes has been placed on the town by literally and metaphorically removing the head of the serpent that haunts them all.

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Set in a small American town that feels reminiscent of a post-Katrina ghost town, Lost River acts as an unashamedly direct metaphor for the modern American nightmare, in which people, sex and violence are commodities to be sold and consumed. It is, in a number of ways, the lesser cousin of Nightcrawler in that amoral characters who are dead behind the eyes flourish while those whose only wealth is their own innate sense of goodness are left to scramble, scrimp and steal in order to survive. As the rich indulge their perversions on the bodies of the destitute and the desperate – whether that be through sex, violence or the inevitable combination of the two – the remains of a once great society literally burn and crumble to the ground around them. A house, which was once home to the hopes, dreams and ambitions of a family, burns to cinders as we watch on; human misery, packaged and presented to the audience as art, yet still we watch.

To suggest that this is Gosling’s metaphorical portrayal of the last days of capitalism might be to read too much into it, but there’s no denying just how radical and progressive this piece of work is. It is the equivalent of a distinctly human nightmare which unfolds on the screen before our eyes. It is the collapse of the post-war American Dream taken to its extremes, in which violence is encouraged and to speak out or fight back is to literally have your ability to speak removed. When Bully removes the lips of his victims in a fit of near-sexual rage, he brands them. They can no longer speak out and they can never conceal their past disobedience to the system. It’s blunt, sure, but it suits the tone of the piece, which is one of intense extremity.

For Gosling then, the “rights” and “wrongs” of society have become so blurred and subverted in the wake of financial collapse that – at the film’s most extreme moments – murder is a justifiable means by which the victims must survive. Themes of violent revolution run through the lifeblood of the film, and while I’m not for a moment suggesting that Gosling isn’t advocating a bloody uprising to overthrow our capitalist overlords (or maybe he is…), his film recognises that the difference between what is legal and what is “right” is one that only ever suits those at the top. When Billy pleads her case to the bank manager that she was mis-sold an inappropriate loan, she does so from a moral standpoint. The law – and thus the system – is very much against her.

This concept is at its most apparent when Bones explores the forgotten drowned town that lies just outside his own. The wrongs of the past are brushed to the side and turned into legends; a “curse” or “spell” is blamed, when the onus lies solely on individuals. Yet without this mythical-cum-magical undercurrent, the film wouldn’t work anywhere near as well as it does. Gosling treads a very fine line, blending fantasy with the grim kitchen sink, underclass reality in which his characters are trapped. To his immense credit as a first-time writer/director it mostly pays off.

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With this in mind, the film exudes a “surrealist realism”. Each character, location and situation is just real enough for us to believe in and accept them, yet just weird enough for us to question everything. The Miss Havisham wannabe (played by none other than Barbara fucking Steele no less!) who spends her life watching her wedding video on a continuous loop; the theatre with the mouth for an entrance (the imagery of which is perhaps a bit too obvious) where the powerful rich indulge their sickest violent fantasies on the desperate poor; even the bank, with its dingy back rooms and archaic elevator, where Billy goes to beg. It’s all just too surreal to exist, and yet it complements the dank realism of the piece marvellously. The film plays out in the manner of a dream in which not everything makes sense but the central thrust remains consistent and meaningful.

Lost River isn’t a perfect film by any means but it is a radical and enviable one. Gosling’s acknowledgement of a class of people who never get the screen time they deserve is important in itself; his respect for them more so. In an indie market saturated with the tone and aesthetic of undergraduate cinema, Lost River stands tall. It treads a delicate tightrope and only stumbles occasionally, yet even its failings are admirable. Sure, it “borrows” rather liberally from a number of better influences, but the composite product that Gosling has created stands on its own terms as a fiercely ambitious and thoughtful piece of cinema. The performances are excellent, the cinematography is sublime and Gosling’s work behind the camera is individual and promising.

Perhaps Mr Gosling, a fine actor but one who has never really wowed in any role (with one notable exception), has finally found his calling.