Hey, girl—go with what you know. Actor turned auteur Ryan Gosling’s nutty (and not in a good way) adult fairy tale goes off the rails early and often. You almost have to give it props for how resolutely batshit it is. Almost.
Amid the crumbling houses of American everytown Lost River lives single mom Billy (Christina Hendricks) and her two sons, preadolescent Franky (Landyn Stewart) and teenage Bones (Iain De Caestecker). Their only neighbors are Rat (Saoirse Ronan)—so named because she has a pet rat—and her mute, mentally unsound grandmother, played in a wasted cameo by exploitation-movie goddess Barbara Steele. Billy tries to make ends meet with a red-light-district night job. Bones, meanwhile, broods like the Gosling manqué he is, looking soulful and sensitive as he harvests scrap metal and avoids Bully (Matt Smith), a bestial psycho who’s like Escape from New York’s villainous Duke with a lip-severing fetish.
You also get an underwater town, a magical curse that must be broken, a speaker-shattering score and flaming houses shot in slo-mo. By themselves, the sights are often gorgeous: Half-submerged streetlights illuminate a placid lake; a burning bike slides, sans passenger, across the frame; the always-luminous Hendricks slices her face until she resembles one of Clive Barker’s grotesquely beautiful creations. Cinematographer Benoît Debie (Spring Breakers, Enter the Void) has truly outdone himself.
Yet visual dexterity will get only get you so far. Gosling has clearly designed the movie as a parable of American economic exploitation: The sexually crude Dave (Ben Mendelsohn) and the animalistic Bully are two sides of the same oppressive coin, while the sweet-faced Bones is the ruminative innocent who must find the power to restore his broken family and unite the spiritually destitute. But unfortunately, Gosling is more interested in the cool factor of watching Mendelsohn pimp-dance his way toward a cowering Hendricks than he is in the film’s grad-school–ready themes.