“Broken pieces trying to make a whole” is how writer/director Ryan Gosling describes his new film, Lost River. He follows a single-parent family in their struggle to survive against many odds. Billy (Christina Hendricks) has two sons, a four year-old, and teenaged Bones (Iain De Caestecker), who works long hours gathering scrap metal and whatever else he can sell from empty buildings in town to help them survive. Much of the town was abandoned following a major flood (which has a story behind it), but a few people stubbornly hold onto their homes. Billy is one of these, but she is behind on her payments, and the bank manager, Dave (Ben Mendelsohn) who owns a bordello, wants her to start working there. Her older son is clearly against this, and is trying to make enough money selling scraps to support the family, but standing in his way is the town Bully (Matt Smith), who claims he owns the town and doesn’t want anyone “stealing” from him. He has no qualms about killing and maiming those who defy his orders, so now, Bones’ life is in danger.
After the flood, residents believe their town was cursed, and one named Belladonna (Barbara Steele) became mute. Her granddaughter, called Rat (Saoirse Ronan), takes care of her, and is Bones’ best friend. She shares a historical video with Bones that reveals significant parts of the town’s history, and he goes looking for a city buried beneath the river. There, he finds something that will be of critical value later. Simultaneously, there are intrigues taking place at the Bordello, where the Cat (Eva Mendes) and Billy entertain club patrons with weird, titillating acts featuring sadistic pleasures (lots of “blood”) and Dave sexually harasses Billy.
As the flaming houses, decaying buildings, and tangled forests float by on the screen, with the melodic but haunting score of Johnny Jewel, the viewer is struck by the visual beauty amidst human poverty and suffering, and the cruelty of some. Cinematographer Benoit Debie’s work enhances all these effects.
Gosling’s underlying points seem to relate to current events such as the growing importance of family in a self-serving world and the increasing disparity between a few mega-wealthy people and everyone else. But families through the centuries have survived almost impossible odds; maybe that’s where humanity’s hope lies.
Conversation Hour at SXSW Film Festival, 2015
Del Toro (always an entertainment) praised Gosling’s new film and directorial debut, Lost River, as “weird, a fairy tale, and magical—one in which anything is possible.” Briefly, it is meant as a fairy tale in which a single parent has to fight for survival after their town is abandoned following a catastrophe. One day, the teenage son in the family finds a mysterious city hidden under the water of the river. This leads them on a surprising journey that will test the limits of their love for one another.
The history of Lost River is that it was three years in the making. Gosling first approached del Toro with his ideas, often expressed simply in pictures, which he had taken after Detroit was abandoned following the crash of the U.S automobile industry. del Toro emphasized that the finished product differed little from how it was mapped out in the beginning, and told Gosling, “I’ll direct it if you don.”
Gosling was intent on tapping into the feeling of Detroit in a fairy tale format. Gosling, as a child in Canada, used to look at Detroit as the American Dream, and now it had come to this. Paired with those images, the film is partially based on Gosling’s personal life, growing up in a single-parent family; his mother was beautiful, but bothered by the catcalls she got simply walking down the street, so saw men primarily as predators.
Lost River was difficult to shoot because of the need to enhance the fairy-tale effect, so Gosling engaged the talented Benoit Debie, who only shoots on film (not digital), and the two of them kept the lighting low, using only hints of color. The intent was always to make it as mysterious and magical, without going over the edge. The music by Johnny Jewel added to the magical tone using romantic melodies with dark, threatening undertones
In casting, Gosling talked lovingly about the actors, having recruited the main characters from his friendships. His style is to write the characters and then allow the actors to fill them in. He spoke of Barbara Steele (Belladonna) as representing the mystery of the story, lending a powerful presence. He required people auditioning for the role of Dave, the bordello owner, to do an audition online on an open site by having them read a Robert Frost poem and perform a dance as if they were dancing with someone else. Ben Mendelsohn nailed the part, making a big production of the dance, and increasing its dramatic effect by periodically dancing off-screen. There are fairy-tale like names for characters, such as Dr. Fucking Who, who longs to be the king of a place where there are no subjects and Rat, a hoarder who lives like a rat and has a rat for a friend. Then there is the talented four year-old whom Gosling sees as a future “Marlon Brando.” Because Franky actually didn’t like cameras, the crew had to film him out of his sight by, for instance, hiding themselves and their cameras behind bushes.
The current residents of Detroit coincidentally got into the picture because Gosling had the choice of keeping them off the set—which seemed impossible—or using them in the scenes. He decided they added an authenticity to the production by integrating reality into the fantasy.
Lost River is meant to be viewed as magical realism, as when a work of art has magical, unrealistic elements in an otherwise realistic world, such as a fairy tale, for example. Gosling intentionally inserted those elements into his film to capture better what he had observed as changes Detroit went through after it was almost abandoned by the auto industry. The story, color, and tone of the work is in the tradition of Terrence Malick (Tree of Life and To the Wonder) and Nicolas Winding Rifn (Only God Forgives).
By Donna R. Copeland