Recalling the blend of hardscrabble reality and hypnagogic fantasy in Beasts of the Southern Wild, Lost River takes place in the ruins of a city that has been literally and metaphorically drowned. The construction of a reservoir has forced residents from their homes, leaving behind a barely-populated wasteland. In one surreal moment, single mother Billy (Christina Hendricks) returns home to find the house next to hers being torn down without warning; she's behind on her mortgage, and knows they may be next.
Desperate to keep her two children in the house they grew up in, she accepts when her scummy bank manager Dave (a standout Ben Mendelsohn) offers her a job in his scary cabaret club - think Mulholland Drive's Club Silencio, with more mutilation.
Meanwhile, Billy's eldest son Bones (Iain De Caestecker) is left at home to scavenge through the wreckage and contend with the faintly demonic presence of Matt Smith's jauntily-dressed sociopath Bully. With his dirtied white T-shirt and laconic mumbling, De Caestecker looks for all the world like a mini-Gosling, but he lacks his director's ability to make an underwritten role appear nuanced solely by smouldering.
Faring better is Saoirse Ronan as the girl next door, Rat, a gentle soul who convinces Bones that their town's run of bad luck has been caused by an evil spell.
If all this sounds convoluted, it is, and Gosling's script only makes it feel more so. A lack of dialogue is one thing, but it's the lack of narrative construction that becomes problematic - the opening moments unfold in elliptical, woozy snapshots, and it's intriguing right up until the point where you realise the entire film is going to be like this. Lost River doesn't have scenes, but montages: feverish assemblies of images that rely too heavily on Johnny Jewel's gorgeous synth score to string them together.
Nonetheless, the film works its own kind of strange black magic. Its fragmented images and haunting soundscape linger in the mind, as does its overpowering sense of the uncanny. Once Gosling finds his own voice he may well be a director to watch; for now, Lost River is an ambitious but muddled debut, a series of arresting images in search of a narrative.
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