Lost Highway 2: Ryan Gosling's debut "Lost River" visually haunting but mostly pointless

Lost River (2015)  
105 min., rated R.

For his directorial debut, actor Ryan Gosling must have learned a thing or two about directing from collaborating twice with Nicolas Winding Refn on 2011's "Drive" and 2013's "Only God Forgives," which were both intoxicating, often brutally violent shocks to the system that took storytelling to inspired visual and aural levels. With "Lost River," one can tell the newly minted writer-director is aiming for the same kind of hypnotic style but his first effort is purely an empty exercise in style over substance. Despite his obvious influences to auteurs Terrence Malick, David Lynch, Harmony Korine, and David Gordon Green, Gosling still marches to the beat of his own drum, giving hope that his next film will be worth waiting for. Here, Gosling certainly set out to make an art film that is an admirably strange, even mesmerizing, experience. As esoteric filmmaking to the nth degree, it's also almost impossible to embrace and mostly pointless.

Lost River is an urban wasteland in the Detroit area. Single mother Billy (Christina Hendricks) is three months behind on her mortgage but wants to keep her family house for herself and her two boys. About to have their home demolished, she takes a job offered by lecherous bank manager Dave (Ben Mendelsohn) at a Grand Guignol nightclub, with a star attraction (Eva Mendes), that blurs the line between reality and fantasy. Meanwhile, Billy's older son, Bones (Iain De Caestecker), strips dilapidated houses of copper to pay for repairs on his broken-down car and pay for the mortgage. While he's being hunted by sadistic town kingpin Bully (Matt Smith) who has an affinity for cutting off people's lips, Bones takes a liking to a girl named Rat (Saoirse Ronan), who takes care of her mute, catatonic grandmother (Barbara Steele). Rat knows of an educational video that points to Lost River being flooded and turned into a reservoir. Has a spell been cast on their decaying town?

A surreal fairy tale with noir leanings but existing in a world of its own, "Lost River," by very definition, is a fever dream that the viewer is recommended not to bring too much logic into it. It sets the ethereal gothic mood with the cool, menacing score by composer Johnny Jewel (2008's "Bronson") and the arrestingly nightmarish cinematography by Benoît Debie (2013's "Spring Breakers"), the best DP to have in one's corner. The impressionistic imagery is haunting, from submerged streelights illuminating a lake, to Billy peeling off her face as part of her act to the audience. "Lost River" also boasts moments of tensionBones hides in a convenience store, while Rat runs into Bully outside; Bully's facially scarred driver Face (Torrey Wigfield) sets aflame Rat's grandmother's living room as she stares blankly at old footage of her late husbandand at least one unforgettable scene in the Grand Guignol. The shell room, where a claustrophobic Billy is enclosed in a transparent Iron Maiden for more money, is also a creepy idea, matched by its neon hues.

Behind the camera, Gosling is assured in his experimental style, albeit only visually and aurally, but the images and sounds are in the service of little meaning in the meandering storytelling. What point is he exactly trying to make? That urban decay leads to an underworld? Or, did Gosling just cobble together his influences and hope for all of it to stick as a loose narrative? Sure, everything comes to a head, but it's hard to discern much of a thematic throughline and the characters are all still archetypes. At least the cast is game with getting lost in Gosling's dreamy aesthetic and showing more commitment than the story is really worth. As Bones, Iain De Caestecker (2014's "In Fear") brings a grounded authenticity to the out-there proceedings; Christina Hendricks, with whom Gosling worked on "Drive," heads into dark, vulnerable spaces as the desperate Billy; and while Ben Mendelsohn is being typecast as a creep, he does it effectively and that includes performing a weird dance in the shell room with Billy, who's only as safe as long as the tube she's enclosed in remains locked.

No art medium is perfect and rarely not self-indulgent. In the case of "Lost River," it is what it is with its flaws and self-indulgence, so without them, it wouldn't be the film Gosling intended. The film rests on the maker's strengths of atmosphere, its artistic merits being hard to deny. Unfortunately, it might alienate viewers since he is out to please nobody and made the film as something that he himself would want to see. It's certainly different, hard to penetrate, and decidedly not for everyoneor anyonebut shrouded in so much pretension. What one viewer will see as thrillingly new and disorienting, another will take as studied and weird for weird's sake, and yours truly falls into the latter camp. "Lost River" begs to be examined and deconstructed until one is blue in the face, but for now, it's a very curious, art-minded failure.

Grade: C +