The answer to the question can Ryan Gosling direct is a resounding 'Sort of.' Lost River is an unwieldy mess of a film, all over the place, scatterbrained, entropic. You could even go so far as to call it an objectively Bad Movie. But you'd have to admit it houses some incredible filmmaking.
At its root, Lost River is Ryan Gosling's student film. Like most student films, it's a messy collection of long dreamed of images and half-assed execution. Normally, these projects reveal nuggets of promise but are hampered by less than adequate means, usually financial and organizational, of seeing them through. That doesn't seem to be the case here. Lost River has the rare honor of being amateur film made by industry professionals.
Ask me what the film is about and I don't think I could answer. It's easy (well... possible) to say what happens in it, although I'm not sure the sum of its parts, both narrative and thematic, are greater than "Ryan Gosling likes the same movies you do, and has the means to make those dreams come true!" but let's give it a try anyway.
Christina Hendricks plays mother Billy and Iain De Caestecker the son Bones. Together with baby Franky the three share a creaky old house in a nightmare vision of Detroit. Billy works as a waitress at a strip club, while Bones spends his days stripping dilapidated houses in a slum run by warlord Bully (Doctor Who
's Matt Smith). Then... a bunch of random things happen in beautifully lit shots by cinematographer Benoit Debie (more on that later) and long story short, Bones falls in love with his neighbor Rat (Saoirse Ronan), Bully declares war on Bones, and Billy gets a job working at her banker's (Ben Mendelsohn) Théâtre du Grand-Guignol
-esque cabaret nightclub. Whew!
Don't breathe just yet, because there's more. There's the underwater city lorded over by a dinosaur statue, there's the lipless henchman named Face and the wisdom spouting taxi driver without a name, who leaves golden eggs like "We're all just looking to be happy." And then there's Eva Mendes as the cabaret's scream queen hostess. Her job is to be murdered onstage every night in newer and more gruesome ways, and she's actually pretty great. It's certainly the best role in the film.
If all of those figures don't feel they should cohere, well, they don't. Each element is reverse engineered to give Gosling maximum reference leeway. Bones frolics at dawn in Malick meadows en route to his Harmony Korine Ruin Porn
house before dancing with Burton goth Rat while her catatonic grandmother played by Mario Bava actress Barbara Steele watches David Lynch's The Grandmother
on TV. That's a real ten-minute sequence from the film. I could go on, but you might as well find a film student and have them rattle names off their DVD shelf because it will have the same effect.
The end of the film is staged as an elaborate recreation of the full Dario Argento aesthetic, with incandescent colors that are almost violently sharp and music that if isn't Goblin might as well be, and it totally, totally works. That's the thing about this film. Gosling decidedly is not an undergrad with a GoPro. He's got access to some to the best craftsmen in the industry and uses them wisely. Cinematographer Benoit Debie, of Enter The Void and Spring Breakers fame, does some of his best ever work here, and Nicolas Winding Refn's team covers production and sound design. Do you know what happens when you get world-class technicians to recreate the aesthetics of world class cinema? You get something very close to world-class cinema!
There are images in this film I won't soon forget. There a sequence between Hendricks and Mendelsohn in a kinky neon torture chamber that ranks among the most unnervingly delightful things I've seen in years. There are enough exquisite touches here to make for a number of excellent music videos (to say nothing of gifs... mark my words, here be the film that launched a thousand tumblrs) but not enough to add to one coherent film.
Gosling may lay it on all too thick, but he's smart enough to step back and let his crew do their work, and that is a form of good directing. He may not know enough to tone it down, take a step back, let his voice be heard above all the noise, but if there is one thing Lost River proves to us, it is this: Gosling's a good student. He'll learn.