Hey girls, let’s talk the women of Ryan Gosling’s ‘Lost River’

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After catching an advanced screening of Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, Lost River, at the Royal Cinema in Toronto last week, I started to mentally compile a list of things I wanted to talk to everyone about once they’d seen it. My list came together as follows:

  1. The look of the film, which clearly borrows from the striking, yet bleak aesthetics of Gosling’s friends Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines) and Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives).
  2. The somewhat already-done storyline featuring young man named Bones (Iain De Caestecker of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) trying to find a way to provide for his single mother (Christina Hendricks) and brother, while also being stalked by a psychotic gangster named Bully (a very, very out-there Matt Smith of Doctor Who fame).
  3. The female characters featured in the film, the way that globally recognized lady lover Gosling wrote and directed them, and the women he chose to play them.

While the first two items could result in their own posts, particularly the first one, the last item struck the most compelling chord within me as a Cinefille. So, in lieu of a standard review, I bring you fellow filles a look into, and my understanding of, each of the women featured in the film and the impact they had on the story, the feel and the meaning of the movie.

Lost River - Billy

Christina Hendricks is always a striking presence on film, partially for her beauty, but mainly for her commanding, yet quiet presence. She’s really something special in the part of Billy.

At first you assume Billy’s going to take the horrifically typical (seriously, how is this an actual movie troupe for single moms?!) route of sleeping with the bank manager (Ben Mendelsohn, also Gosling’s buddy in The Place Beyond the Pines) to make things right. Instead, she simply accepts his card and ominous offer of “a job.” When she finds out what this “job” is–staging murders on stage for a strangely entranced and sadistic audience!–she is initially hesitant, but goes forth with it, not because of this man’s obvious fascination with her (she won’t even let him touch her), but because she sees how well the show’s main attraction (Eva Mendes as Cat) does for herself and imagines if she follows her lead, she too can be seemingly successful and self-sufficient (at least on the outside). She also upholds her values by refusing to participate in the show’s most terrifying side biz: locking yourself in a see-through suit so paying customers can abuse you as they please. Sure, this woman is willing to play with death for these crowds, but not at the price of her life.

Lost River - Billy 3

 

The moral dilemmas that Billy deals with something that many women have to as well. But even though Billy is at least partially being exploited by her boss, Hendricks is never treated that way by Gosling. She’s shot respectfully, so even a scene of her in a bath seems tame (you only see her conflicted face). Also, she’s given a chance to do some really emotionally revealing scenes, including a sequence in which she pretends to cut off her face for the audience. That scene might be the most striking moment of all, not only due to the excellent make-up and cinematography work, but because Hendricks does it without flinching, communicating how strange and scary this must be for Billy with just her eyes (eyes, it turns out, will be a window for the women of Lost River, as cliched as it may be). I would have watched at least another half-hour of her working at the club, covered in fake blood that could turn into her own with one wrong turn.

Lost River - Rat

Ronan’s Rat is also an interesting, layered character. At first she seems like a typical Manic Pixie Dream Girl for Bones, what with her florescent flamingo-lit bedroom, heavy eyeliner (how does one afford so much make-up in a town that’s getting torn apart at every turn?) and odd obsession with her rat. But she is more than that once Bones actually starts talking to her. In fact, she’s a useful and important entity in pushing the story forward, revealing a fascinating fact about Lost River and what Bones can do to save it.

Rat has her own abusive male figures to deal with, as she has to fight off the advances of the lip-slashing (he legitimately cuts off people’s lips, ladies) Bully. She technically does it for Bones, distracting Bully from seeing he’s in a store (Bones took something from Bully and–spoiler alert–he wants it back), but it’s also for her, as Bully is a loose cannon who could, and would, overpower her if she says the wrong thing. The car ride she gets from Bully is one of the most tense scenes in the film, and unfortunately, it doesn’t end well. But Ronan holds her own throughout the scene, straddling the fine line between a faux calm and a genuine sadness before hopping over to one side. As she did with Susie Salmon in The Lovely Bones, Ronan really manages to capture the fragile strength of being a teenage girl surrounded by predators. Again, you almost wonder what she could have been capable of with even more scenes. (Hey, Ryan! This is me campaigning for Lost River 2: Lost Girls.)

Lost River - Cat

Now on to the slightly smaller female roles of the film. The part of Cat, played by Gosling’s real-life partner Mendes, isn’t huge, but girl, is it showy and hard to forget.

Cat is our entrance to the underworld that Billy will soon work for and the first time you see her perform, you almost understand why the crowd is going bananas for her. She’s this strangely zany presence, even when she’s supposed to be “dying,” breathing some odd comedic relief into the tense proceedings. This is perfectly evidenced when Billy brings her youngest son, Franky (adorable newcomer Landyn Stewart), to work one night and Cat seems pleased as peach to be playing with Franky in a pool of fake blood.

Technically, we don’t get too much from Cat in terms of backstory, but it’s worth noting that even without explanations about her past or ruminations on her future, Cat is a captivating presence. What’s more, despite being a “showgirl” of sorts, she’s never exploited on screen or just used for her beauty. It’s almost as though we’re seeing this woman as Gosling likely sees Mendes, as an obvious beauty, but with much more interesting attributes like an offbeat sense of humour and strength of will.

Lost River - Grandma

Grandma (Barbara Steele) is actually hardly seen and never heard from in Lost River, but that’s part of her charm. She’s a mute by choice, clearly in a constant state of silently remembering her town, and her life, as it used to be. As Rat goes around as she pleases, Grandma stays in one spot, watching a video of her wedding day on repeat while dressed in her finest and fanciest Gothic-looking duds likes some sort of Dario Argento version of Miss Havisham.

Initially, you feel sad for Grandma, but she clearly is making a concerted choice to live this life because, well, she’s already lived the one she wanted and it’s seemingly over. In that way, she might be the strongest female character of all, as she refuses to speak, move, or change to please anyone, but herself, perhaps to a fault. Gosling may mainly show us Grandma’s face in close-up, but Steele makes this limited perspective work to advantage thanks to her iconic, horror movie-starring peepers. You get a sense Grandma’s seen things and she’s ready to, perhaps, not see them anymore.

But to not see her, or Billy, or Cat, or Rat, at least once would be a shame.

Catch Lost River and all its ladies starting this Friday, April 24 at The Royal Cinema.

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