In Lost River – a depopulated, economically devastated American town – single mother Billy (Christina Hendricks) tries to keep her family home out of the clutches of the bank. While she’s forced to take work performing in a torture-themed night-club, her eldest son Bones (Iain De Caestecker) crosses a local hoodlum and is marked for punishment.
The town of Lost River looks as if it’s suffered the sort of disaster seen in science fiction films like I Am Legend or the Planet of the Apes movies. Whole neighbourhoods are abandoned, nature reclaims empty zoos, cinemas and schools, and vicious predators have gained power bases which afford them opportunities to abuse poor folk with excess. However, in Ryan Gosling’s first film as writer-director, a simple downturn in the economy has created this brutal, surreal hellhole. It’s no accident that the master villain of this dystopia is the downsizing bank manager. Ramming home the point, the Detroit, Michigan, locations are mostly real. The decaying stretches of the city seen recently in Only Lovers Left Alive and It Follows seem upscale next to the settings of Lost River.
This joins a stream of American art movies which meld downbeat, angry social realism with fantasy-tinged horror. Usually these films are peopled with unknowns, but Gosling calls in an array of interesting cult performers to populate his glum, yet poetic fable. There’s excellent work from stately Christina Hendricks as the mom nervously taking a job in a night spot which might be a collaboration between David Lynch (purple light, sinister country and western karaoke) and Clive Barker (strippers who peel off their skin).
Saoirse Ronan as the rat-loving granddaughter of a mute, veiled grande dame (horror icon Barbara Steele) and Iain De Caestecker as Hendricks’ scavenger son represent fragile hope for the future, looking to fulfil a prophecy which involves a drowned dinosaur park under the now-useless reservoir. The hissably hateful villains are weaselly, fast-talking Ben Mendelsohn as the sadistic loan manager and shaven-headed, sparkle-shirted (near unrecognisable) Matt Smith as a wannabe post-apocalypse gang boss with only one (appallingly mistreated) minion.
Lost River actually tells a straightforward suspense story — innocents at the mercy of human monsters find the resolve to strike back – but works harder on conjuring up a dreamy, picturesque, decaying atmosphere.