Nicolas Sparks heartthrob … Oscar-nominated character actor … the face that launched a thousand memes. Ryan Gosling can do it all — as long as it’s in front of the camera. Twenty-two years after his screen debut as a Mouseketeer, though, the “Hey Girl” guy is finally floundering in a role: as the new Nicolas Winding Refn, the Danish auteur who directed Gosling in the stylish but empty “Drive” and the stupid and execrable “Only God Forgives.”
Gosling’s first turn behind the camera owes a mammoth debt to Refn (and a smaller one to David Lynch). Starring Christina Hendricks, Saoirse Ronan, Matt Smith, Iain De Caestecker and Gosling’s partner Eva Mendes (all wasted here), “Lost River” is little more than Detroit-based ruin porn, an aesthetic exploitation of poverty and hardship punctuated by splashes of neon and blood.
Which isn’t to say that those couldn’t be the ingredients for a great movie. Swap out the neon for patterned silk, give the actors something to do, and you’ve got last year’s luminous “Only Lovers Alive,” one of the best films of Jim Jarmusch’s long and celebrated career. Where Gosling goes wrong is in the priggish bombast. Instead of Refn and Lynch’s self-contained worlds, he attempts Serious Commentary about the American Dream. But the actor shows no understanding of how poverty works, nor enough interest in his characters to explain how they’ve fallen so far behind or how they feel about where they’ve ended up.
The plot, such as it is, finds Bones (De Caestecker, “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”) pursued by one psychopath while his mother Billy (Hendricks) attempts to evade another. We never learn why neither character has gainful employment, how mother and son support themselves and Billy’s infant son, or who the father(s) of the two boys are, because the only character detail that matters is that they’re poor.
Bones strips copper wire from abandoned houses and sells it to a local junkyard to make a few bucks here and there, a trespass that makes him the target of a local gangster. Bully (Smith) has a penchant for cutting off the lips of his enemies (and even a friend) with scissors, leaving his victims with nothing to cover their teeth or stop their perpetual drooling. (It’s gross.) And yet Bones hardly thinks to get the hell out of Dodge, even when Bully starts stalking his best friend Rat (Ronan).
Billy, meanwhile, is pressured into taking a job at her bank lender’s (Ben Mendelsohn) nightclub, a ghoulish haunt where the performers are fake-slaughtered on stage, to save her house from foreclosure. I’m not sure why Refn (in “Drive”) and Gosling here are so enamored with the idea of mutilating Hendricks’ gorgeous face on screen, but there’s a macabre and hard-to-watch scene in which Billy carves up her own face and peels away the skin. (It’s really gross.) The real money, though, is downstairs, implies club favorite Cat (Mendes), where things get even creepier.
Gosling, who also wrote the screenplay, manages to drum up a sustained mood of dread and suspense throughout the film’s third act through tight editing, a coolly menacing score (by Johnny Jewel, who scored Refn’s “Bronson”), and the already established hyper-violence of the villains. The first-time filmmaker also shows a gift for provocative images, though the symbolism rarely gets subtler than a house on fire or a baby covered in blood.
But the artificial “Lost River” feels like the directorial version of the phony-baloney tough-guy accent Gosling affects from time to time. The actor has proved he can be just as creatively sadistic as his hero Refn; if Gosling attempts a follow-up, I’d like to see some brains — and not just brain matter — behind the bluster.