"Lost River" sounds like the title of a David Lynch movie. At times it even looks like one, with uncanny images of Detroit that look like they came from episodes of the History Channel's "Life After People." It has a bad guy (Ben Mendelsohn), who sings an odd golden oldie (the 1936 standard "Cool Water," by Bob Nolan) under bizarre lighting with zomboid zeal, like Dean Stockwell lip-synching "In Dreams," in "Blue Velvet" (1986). It has otherworldly landscapes, such as a field sprouting rows of rusty streetlights leading down to an overgrown field and into a reservoir lost in mist.
Unlike Lynch's "Lost Highway" (1997), however, Ryan Gosling's debut feature, "Lost River," leaves little to the imagination. He apparently has learned nothing or too much from his experience in Nicolas Winding Refn's overwrought "Only God Forgives" (2013): Everything in his film is painfully obvious or patently nonsensical.
More banal than obscure in its origins and significance, the mythical town of the title is so named because it once stood on the banks of a river now dammed up and reduced to a useless reservoir. A symbol of America's savaging of its resources and the resultant dehumanized wasteland, Lost River looks like a Rust Belt variation on the dystopia of the original "Mad Max" (1979)
It's a place where people have names like Bones (Iain De Caestecker), Rat (Saoirse Ronan), Bully (Matt Smith), and Cat (Eva Mendes). Bones wants to leave town but won't abandon his mother, Billy (Christina Hendricks), and his little brother; plus, he can't get his car started. Rat has a pet rat and eyes for Bones. Bully is the local gang lord who monopolizes the scrap copper trade and does terrible things with a pair of scissors.
Even more despicable, though, is Dave (Mendelsohn), the banker who runs a Grand Guignol pleasure dome when he's not foreclosing mortgages. Billy's beloved family home tops his list, but Dave offers her a job at his cartoonish nightclub, where she joins the Carmen Miranda-ish Cat in entertaining the jaded clientele by simulating realistic acts of self-mutilation involving scalpels and knives and peeled off faces. Such is the fate of Western culture during the death throes of capitalism.
Gosling acknowledges a debt to Italian giallo horror films by casting Barbara Steele as Rat's Miss Havisham-like Grandma, but as the film chugs along to its nutty three-way climax, the choice seems less an homage to Steele in Mario Bava's "Black Sunday" (1960) than to Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood's "Glen or Glenda" (1953). Unfortunately, "Lost River" possesses neither the seductive decadence of the one nor the visionary inanity of the other.