We speculate on the films that may have played a part in The Gos’s directorial debut
Ryan Gosling, perhaps sick of being reduced to a meme, has made a film that’s full of cinematic influences. His directorial debut, Lost River, is a horror fairytale for children whose bedtime reading is Criterion essays; it’s a gothic painting splashed with fluorescent colours and knowing tributes to cult heroes.
Stuck in a decaying town, a single mother and her two sons encounter danger in the form of a blood-stained burlesque club, an underwater village, and Ben Mendelsohn’s terrible dancing. It’s a visually ambitious insight into a DVD collection that’s more Only God Forgives (2013) than Crazy Stupid Love (2011).
THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, DEREK CIANFRANCE (2013)
If Gosling’s antihero from Pines made a movie, it’d be like Lost River – a carefully curated dialogue, tortured men settling personal scores, and plenty of space for a motorcycle. The actual place beyond the pines, as Cianfrance suggests, is where bullies prosper and suburbia can’t hear you scream. It’s also the underwater dreamland of Lost River, which officially thanks Cianfrance (alongside Nicolas Winding Refn and Terrence Malick) in the credits. And if you’re a first-time director collaborating with so many pros, it’d be wasteful to not pick up a few tricks.
ENTER THE VOID, GASPAR NOÉ (2009)
If Enter the Void is correct about the afterlife, the air is full of dead spirits soaring around and creepily spying on strangers having sex. Benoît Debie, the cinematographer responsible for Noé’s neon nightmare, deserves credit for lensing Lost River with the threat of death lingering in each frame. In the watery atmosphere of Gosling’s creation, the residents drift, rather than walk, as if they’ve already drowned, and a ghostly presence hangs around the desolate landscapes. It’s an abstract task passed with flying, lurid colours.
THE TREE OF LIFE, TERRENCE MALICK (2011)
From the moment lens flare is lavished upon Christina Hendricks twirling her child in the grass, Lost River shines a trademark light upon Gosling’s Malick obsession – not to mention a reappearance of the burning barn from Days of Heaven (1978). Gosling actually stars in Malick’s forthcoming Weightless, and must have received advice like, “Just make sure everyone keeps running into the sun for some reason.” But Gosling, unlike Malick, uses the technique sparingly, and saves it for a blissful snapshot of a past that slipped away.
THE SECRET OF NIMH, DON BLUTH (1982)
No one likes rain, let alone flooding. That’s why a cartoon PSA is required to explain artificial flooding to the young residents of Lost River. And the clip feels authentic because Gosling hired an animator from family classic The Secret of NIMH to create it. Gosling cites NIMH as a key influence, and its story (a widowed rat and her children escape from a farm) is basically Lost River with rats. Don’t believe me? Saoirse Ronan’s character is called Rat, and she has a pet rat. It’s about rats, okay!
BLUE VELVET, DAVID LYNCH (1986)
With innocent characters unearthing an evil presence in their community (like Kyle MacLachlan discovering an ear in the ground), Lost River is populated by its own Dennis Hoppers. There’s Matt Smith as someone actually called Bully, and Ben Mendelsohn who croons into an oversized microphone at a stage show modelled after the Slow Club in Blue Velvet and Club Silencio in Mulholland Drive (2001). Lynchian is an overused term for anything remotely odd, but Gosling does a great job at making sure Lost River is more than just peculiar.
GUMMO, HARMONY KORINE (1997)
A tornado can destroy buildings, but the everlasting psychological damage is the spiral of nihilism prevalent in Gummo. The same fate falls upon Lost River – not shy of turning Detroit into “ruin porn” city – with Gosling flooding the neighbourhood with ranting weirdoes and vandals smashing whatever they see. There could be a bit more trash humping on display, but a burning bicycle parallels Korine’s Supreme short with David Blaine’s saliva setting a skateboard on fire. Think Gummo, reshot through the vibrant lens of Spring Breakers (2012).
DONNIE DARKO, RICHARD KELLY (2001)
There’s a Donnie Darko edge to the adolescent relationship between moody loner Bones and sympathetic neighbour Rat, while the latter’s grandmother is eerily reminiscent of Grandma Death, the withdrawn author of The Philosophy of Time Travel. The Grandma Death of Lost River, however, is just withdrawn – she’s been mute since her husband died, and just watches home videos on repeat, wishing she understood time travel. Gosling could have picked anyone for the role (just sitting down, basically), but went for Barbara Steele, the Giallo icon known for super Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960).
HOLY MOTORS, LEOS CARAX (2012)
Holy Motors is another bold experiment in cinephilia that openly showcases its references. It begins with Denis Lavant stepping into a cinema and, like Lost River, features a car that drives characters across various genres, Eva Mendes in a surreal role, and the ominous image of a house with a single room lit in bright purple. But while audiences at Cannes applauded Holy Motors for its daringly shifting tone and pastiches (from Mauvais sang (1986) to Pixar), Lost River was unfairly booed, despite ticking the same boxes.
EYES WITHOUT A FACE, GEORGES FRANJU (1960)
Another Holy Motors connection is how Lost River also pays direct tribute to Franju’s horror classic about a female car crash survivor whose disfigured face is replaced by a mask. Christina Hendricks’ burlesque act (slicing off her cheeks and forehead to please an audience of men) is too similar to be a coincidence, but in doing so evokes the memory of a film that’s a powerful concoction of cruelty, carnival music, and being confined to an unpleasant dream. That assortment of reactions is precisely what Lost River is all about.
ONLY GOD FORGIVES, NICOLAS WINDING REFN (2013)
The Refn factor is undeniable for Gosling, whose only onscreen appearance since Only God Forgives was for the documentary My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (2014). Several Refn regulars joined the crew for Lost River. So it's no wonder that influence is felt in the fluorescent corridors, the point blank violence, and the ultra-cool driving scenes scored by Johnny Jewel. But Gosling isn’t trying to be Refn, and, if anything, is more inspired by his fellow director’s refreshing fearlessness to defying conventional taste.