Lost River

Year: 2014
Production Co: Bold Films
Director: Ryan Gosling
Writer: Ryan Gosling
Cast: Iain De Caestecker, Christina Hendricks, Matt Smith, Ben Mendelsohn, Eva Mendes

One of those notorious movies booed at Cannes has proved too contentious/silly/boring/confusing for a mainstream release. Warner Brothers famously dropped it soon after the first audiences saw it, and now it's finally coming straight to DVD (no doubt after a few token showings in small cinemas here and there).

It might have received even less attention had it not been for the cast and high profile director in Ryan Gosling, but what was it that had fest audiences so riled up? It's hard to say – there seems to be a lot of murky symbolism and subtext, but there's no more than you'll find in plenty of other indie films that have you scratching your head and just wishing they'd get on with the story.

There is a definite narrative here, what's less clear is what Gosling (directing from his own script) is using it to say.

Lost River certainly seems to be commenting on poverty and urban decline. The titular small town is in its death throes – almost everyone's left, buildings are crumbling and streets are overgrowing (it's not much of a surprise it was shot in suburban Detroit). A young man named Bones (Iain De Caestecker) makes a living raiding abandoned buildings for scrap metal to sell, but even that means of support is being closed off.

His sole scrapyard customer tells him they can't buy from him any more and even if they could, a fearsome gang roams the streets, their leader (Matt Smith of Dr Who) warning anyone in earshot against taking his property – everything left of any economic value – through a bullhorn.

Meanwhile, Bones' mother Billie (Christina Hendricks) is struggling to make ends meet and doesn't know how to make her next house payment. Her slimy bank manager (Ben Mendelsohn, in the sort of role he's starting to own – see Exodus: Gods and Kings as well) seems to want to help when he suggests a work opportunity, but it turns out to be an exotic club where the elite can go and watch attractive women like Cat (Eva Mendes) pretend to be murdered and tortured.

The more evocative story is Bones' budding friendship/romance with Rat (Saoirse Ronan), an enigmatic girl who tells him stories of how the old town was flooded and still sits on the floor of the river. It leads to one of the most haunting images not just of this movie but of the year so far – street lights coming on at dusk, all of them standing half submerged in deep water.

There's something emblematic in the 'death club' about the rich feeding off the rest of us, but like the rest of the motifs, it's not very obvious what it is. It seems working with Nicholas Winding Refn has rubbed off on Gosling as a director and he no doubt got something richly creative out of the experience. It's more than the rest of us will get, but it's not as dire as you've heard.

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