Had Terrence Malick and David Lynch somehow conceived an artistic love-child together, only to see it get kidnapped, strangled and repeatedly kicked in the face by Nicolas Winding Refn, the results might look and sound something like “Lost River,” a risible slab of Detroit gothic that marks an altogether inauspicious writing-directing debut for Ryan Gosling. “Lost” is indeed the operative word for this violent fairy tale about a fractured family trying to survive among the ruins of a city overrun by thugs, sexual predators and other demons, nearly all of them cribbed from the surreal cinematic imaginations of other, vastly more intuitive filmmakers. It’s perversely admirable to the extent that Gosling has certainly put himself out there, sans shame or apology, but train-wreck fascination will go only so far to turn this misguided passion project into an item of even remote commercial interest.
“Nobody’s coming back,” says one of the few remaining denizens of Lost River, a fictional stand-in for Detroit (where the picture was shot) that has seen seen its population dwindle in the wake of crippling economic collapse. Still hanging on, albeit barely, is Billy (Christina Hendricks), a single mother who works as a waitress at a seedy dive in a city that now seems to consist of little more than seedy dives. Her elder son, Bones (Iain De Caestecker), is a layabout who occasionally steals for a living; her much younger son, Franky (Landyn Stewart), appears mainly in the opening credits, then pops up only occasionally to play hide-and-seek with Bones and express his fear of monsters.
Certainly there’s no shortage of such baddies stalking through the picture’s hot-hued frames, one of whom is Bully (Matt Smith), a microphone-waving, gold-sequin-decked menace to society who has made Bones his personal enemy No. 1. The other chief villain here is Dave (Ben Mendelsohn), a lecherous banker who delights in informing Billy that she’ll probably lose her house unless she goes to work at a Lynchian nightclub whose live acts pander to its clientele’s most lurid exploitation-cinema fantasies: The first one we see finds the club’s star (Eva Mendes) being knifed to death a la Dario Argento, while Billy’s gig involves a skin-peeling tribute to Georges Franju’s “Eyes Without a Face.” (The less said about the rape-enabling contraption stashed in the basement, the better.)
There are, to be sure, a few decent souls hovering in the vicinity: Bones befriends his sweet neighbor, Rat (who named these people?), played by Saoirse Ronan as a dark-haired beacon of decency who at one point selflessly saves Bones from Bully. Elsewhere, Billy finds a sympathetic ear in the kind-hearted cabbie (Reda Kateb, “Zero Dark Thirty”) she hires to drive her around from one ghastly appointment to the next. But there are no real characters here, merely shopworn hero/villain archetypes stuck in a grindingly monotonous and virtually plot-free persecution narrative — which would be fine, or at least tolerable, if Gosling had any real capacity for the nightmarish lyricism he admires in the directors who influenced him, or if he were able to invest his filmmaking with the sort of passionate feeling that would allow it to transcend its derivative schlock roots.
Thanks to the strong visual sense of cinematographer Benoit Debie does and some expert location scouting, individual images can be transfixing — a house burning in the night, a sunken city represented by a few streetlights protruding over the water. There is something of Harmony Korine’s “Gummo” in “Lost River’s” evocation of post-apocalyptic dead-end existence, and also perhaps a touch of the rural decay evident in Gosling’s collaborations with Derek Cianfrance, one of several filmmakers (including Malick and Guillermo del Toro) who are thanked in the end credits. Alas, the overriding influence here would appear to be Refn, who directed Gosling in the thrilling “Drive” and the puerile “Only God Forgives,” and whose weakness for threadbare narratives and character types, eyeball-scorching color schemes and overweeningly stylish musical accompaniment is abundantly in evidence. What’s missing, though, is an equivalent sense of Refn’s control, given the largely scattershot and arbitrary approach to editing and camera placement.
Of the actors, De Caestecker is pretty colorless, Ronan makes welcome company, Stewart is cute as a button, and Hendricks (“Drive”) may well leave you longing for an episode of “Mad Men,” where she’s sexually objectified as a matter of course but to far more rewarding ends. Whether he’s dancing up a storm or loudly calling attention to his character’s hearing impairment, Mendelsohn steals every one of his scenes, and frankly he can have them.