Ryan Gosling’s directing debut, Lost River, became the biggest non-stunt media event of the festival so far. The excitement was palpable, and queues began forming for its 2pm premiere a full 90 minutes before, with crowds stretching for hundreds of yards in all directions. Afterwards, however, there were quite a few puzzled faces; Lost River, formerly titled How To Catch A Monster is even more of an arthouse/grindhouse crossover than last year’s Only God Forgives, jumping erratically between styles in a film that echoes a number of cult American directors – Harmony Korine, David Lynch, David Gordon Green, Crispin Glover – that one wouldn’t expect his mainstream audience to know or much care about.
Though the new title isn’t quite so catchy, it does better reflect the story, which concerns a woman named Billy (Christina Hendricks) who lives with her two sons in a shabby house in a derelict part of a decaying, unnamed town. Billy struggles to make ends meet, and when the bank threatens to foreclose on her, she takes a job in a weird sex-gore-and-vaudeville nightclub run by a mysterious businessman (Ben Mendelsohn). Her eldest son Bones (Iain De Caestecker), meanwhile, has become obsessed with the city’s history; it transpires that the area was flooded to create a reservoir. There is a local superstition that the area is cursed because of that, and Bones vows to break the spell.
It’s being quite generous to say that the film is reminiscent of Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider follow-up The Last Movie, in that is not a traditionally formal film by any means. Gosling is driven by images and music rather than narrative and dialogue; images of a burning house recur, and when Johnny Jewel’s electronic score (the only strong link to Gosling’s 2012 hit Drive) isn’t dominating it, the soundtrack is littered with old tootling jazz.
Hendricks has the best, or rather the most sympathetic part, as the struggling Billy, and her wide, puzzled eyes at least give us a perspective on this weird, Beasts Of The Southern Wild-like world. Other actors – Matt Smith, Saoirse Ronan – aren’t so lucky, inhabiting roles that are never fleshed out in a film that tries to put atmosphere before anything else. It’s a brave attempt to make a deliberate cult movie (Italian horror icon Barbara Steele has a very knowing cameo), but Lost River never conjures up the seductive, narcotic dream-state that Gosling was clearly gunning for.