Lost River (2014)

Despite universal condemnation, Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, Lost River, is a fascinating piece of cinematic art. Whilst I wish to write an in-depth analysis of this feature, I am going to focus on just one aspect of the film on this occasion. This article forms a part of a mini-series on the American Dream, which started with my review on Brooklyn, followed by an article on The Big Short. As the latter offers an inside story of the 2007-08 financial crisis, Lost River delivers a contrasting yet complementary picture, a harrowing fantasy bred by the same event which marks the collapse of the American Dream.

Lost River is the name of a fictional town near Detroit, Michigan. Like many places in the USA, it once was a place which promised a good life and a better future, yet now it is in permanent decay. There, the great exodus has already taken place, and only a handful of residents remain. This shadow of town, the perfect picture of degeneration, is where Gosling's dark fantasy comes to life. Billy (Christina Hendricks, known for her role in a hit TV series, Mad Men) is a single mother who struggles to survive in this wasteland with her two sons, Bones (Ian De Caestecker), a teenage boy with whom she has a testy relationship, and Franky, who appears to be suffering from some form of learning disability, most probably due to malnutrition. Billy faces the prospect of losing her family home of generations; she was tricked into refinancing her home by a banker named Carl, who happens to be her former husband. Like most in town, Billy is unemployed, and thus she has no means to pay back the loan. She tries to directly renegotiate the deal with Carl and visits the bank, only to discover his disappearance; in his place now sits Dave (Ben Mendelsohn, from The Place Beyond Pines), who fired Carl and has taken over the entire operation. From this point on, the already dire situation becomes terribly sinister. Dave turns a deaf ear to Billy, quickly turns the table, and cozies up to her; he slips his business card for his side gig into her hand and offers a job right there and then, strongly suggesting his personal interest in her by stating: She is a beautiful woman.

In the mean time, Billy’s first son, Bones, struggles to fix his car so that he can leave this rut for good. Yet, he spends most of the day trying his best to help the family by breaking into abandoned buildings to salvage copper, which he sells to a local scavenging business. Then, out of the blue, his home town turns into a no-man’s land: a skinhead called Bully (Matt Smith, best known as the 11th Dr. Who) declares Lost River his own and decides to hunt down the ‘thief’ in his domain. After caught red-handed outside of an abandoned building, Bones leaves everything to Bully and flees for his life. However, realising how imminent is the threat of losing his family home, he sneaks into Bully’s base and takes back what he thinks is rightly ‘his’. Seeing Bones managing to flee again, Bully comes after Bones and his associates himself. The one who is caught in this dangerous game is Rat (Brooklyn star, Saoirse Ronan), the girl living next door to Bones with her demented grandmother. She tells Bones the reason why the town and its inhabitants are cursed, then suggests that he break the spell: to complete the mission, one must capture the monster lurking in the ghost town, which is entirely submerged under the dam next to Lost River. As Bully relentlessly pursues Bones, Rat falls into his clutches, and discovers what it means to live through a reality which becomes perilously surreal by every passing minute.

The terrifying dreamscape of contemporary America captured by Gosling is condemned by critics as a crude mash-up of a Lynchesque fetish and naïve political statements about crippling economic inequality, yet there is nothing further from truth; Lost River is neither self-indulgent as many of Lynch’s features can be, nor is it limited to documenting the economic struggles of ordinary Americans. It contains critical representations of many subjects such as violence, the exploitation of women, immigration, and the notion of ‘home’, and thus, it does not focus on any single topical subject matter in a way The Big Short and Capitalism: A Love Story (Michael Moore, 2009) do. Rather, what Gosling created is a fairy tale bred by the senselessness of life in contemporary America: the America represented here is an empire which champions Industrial Materialism, and crumbles as this Form of Life runs its course. And thus, paradoxically, there could be alternate versions of this film which express different experiences of, and reactions to, the modern human condition under Industrial Materialism. For example, a West African version of this degeneration should be vastly different from a Middle Eastern version or a European version, yet they would still be about the same degeneration which has been dragging us down for quite some time now. It is a decline on many fronts: ecological, political, economic, aesthetic, intellectual, moral and spiritual. Interestingly, Gosling’s debut directorial feature at first appears to suggest that there is a way out of this hell, for one can always leave a graveyard of broken dreams and move on with life in a new town; Bones is taking account of his friend’s advice and pins all his hope on fixing his car and leaving Lost River for good. If the curse is about a specific town, then one should simply leave there before it is too late. This way of thinking reflects an underlying desire represented by many a ‘superhero movie’: There has to be a special destination, the Promised Land if you will, wherein fate magically enables my unrealised potential and fulfils my destiny for me.

To Gosling’s credit, he carefully avoids this particular pitfall which has been preventing many of us from realising just how hollow the notion of the Promised Land is. The film features an immigrant taxi driver (impressively portrayed by Reda Kateb) who has quite a few wise observations to spare; what he has to say about life in the USA from the perspective of an outsider is at once sobering and compelling. In the end, it is this newcomer who helps Bones’ family and Rat escape from Lost River. And the last scene presents the journey away from Lost River as a one-way trip into the endless night; whilst there is a sense of relief in all passengers, it is clear that nobody knows where and/or how their journey ends. No matter how long they drive, they are still in America, and there is no place on Earth where the influence of this global empire cannot reach. Still, unlike Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011), which features Gosling as the driver who disappears into the distance alone, this film ends with perhaps the only kind of hope we could have in this world today: the presence of the ones whom we care deeply. The history of humankind is also the history of ideas, be they religious, philosophical, economic, political, or aesthetic. Our story so far has been that of the conflict of ideas without the supposed sublation. The latest events seem to confirm the end to all grand ideologies, each of which claims to offer the key to the only and final salvation. We are at the point where every political ideology has failed, including capitalism, the most negative ideology of all in the sense that it embodies the refusal to think anything through (God’s invisible hands!). Thus, we can safely conclude that there is no purely political solution for our problems; whilst large-scale structural reforms (of improbable scale) are urgently needed, as I noted in my reflection on The Big Short, we cannot expect political solutions, whatever they might be, to be sufficient on their own to change the destructive course of our civilisation.

Whilst one might be tempted to ask whether there is anything that could ‘save us’, I think it is the wrong question to ask, for it is exactly what has misled us in the first place. Rather, a better question to ask is: How can each of us simply go on? The answer Gosling is suggesting seems to be: our company with whom we deeply care about. Incidentally, it is the same realisation which inspired “Where Are We Now?’, one of the last songs written and performed by David Bowie. Upon revisiting Berlin, the city that represents the ideal and the destructiveness of modernity in the most stark light, the wizard seems to have discovered an answer to the most existential question of all: Why must we go on? His answer is different from Beckett’s. Whilst Beckett refuses to have a reason at all, Bowie finds it in our potential to appreciate the world as it is ('as long as there’s sun/as long as there’s rain'), and in the company of someone he personally cares about ('as long as there’s me/as long as there’s you'). When humanity seems to be the worst enemy of itself, it is hard, if not impossible, to trust anything we humans invent as solutions: Every revolution ends in a massively violent conflict, and every reform is sabotaged by pettiness. When faced with such a realisation, like Gosling and Bowie, I would like to think that, for most of us, having a positive thought and feeling on certain people (not limited to humankind) in our life should be enough for us to go on. With them, and for them, we might be able to endure challenges that get in our way with certain grace.