American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
The reviews for Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut in “Lost River” (which he also wrote) out of Cannes last year were so vitriolic and downright hateful that I expected some sort of narcissistic variation on “The Room”. The good news is that “Lost River” is far from horrible; there are too many interesting ideas and strong visual compositions to write it off completely, and it’s actually kind of bizarre that so many people did so on the Riviera. The bad news is that it still doesn’t quite work, largely because Gosling has bitten off more than he can chew, assembling ideas and images without the directorial vision to connect them. His film was clearly influenced by Nicolas Winding Refn, David Lynch and Terrence Malick, and one gets the distinct impression that mimicking filmmakers with such confident visual sensibilities may not have been the best way for a rookie director to get his feet wet. The result is a piece with images that connect only superficially, never finding the thematic resonance of a Lynch or Malick vision. Gosling’s eye is too confident to ignore, but one hopes he points it at a more-engaging product next time.
“Lost River” takes place in a totally desolate and nearly-destroyed Detroit, in which Billy (Christina Hendricks) and her son Bones (Iain De Caestecker) struggle to make ends meet. She’s three months behind on the mortgage payments; he spends his days scrounging burned-out buildings for copper. In the world of “Lost River”, there are predators everywhere for people already on the edge of society; people who exist to pull them into the abyss. Billy’s comes in the form of the new employee she meets at the bank named Dave (Ben Mendolsohn), who has a proposition for her to make more money. Bones’ comes in the form of Bully (Matt Smith), a freakish villain who drives around town with a megaphone warning those considering stealing his copper that they better “look at his muscles” first.
Exhausting all of her options, Billy takes up Dave’s offer to work at an exclusive, hidden nightclub, at which female performers pretend to mutilate and disfigure themselves. Run by the charismatic Cat (Eva Mendes), every night’s show includes paying customers who just want to be washed in the fake blood of beautiful women. And, of course, there’s something even more nefarious, but more profitable, for Billy in the basement of this disturbing establishment. Dave tells Billy that he goes town to town, setting up these exhibitions of violence, even in poor areas, and makes a fortune. The commentary on mass-produced re-creations of horror is a bit underlined and highlighted, but it leads to some striking imagery, including Hendricks casually taking off her face.
Meanwhile, Bones’ only friend Rat (Saoirse Ronan) tells him about an underwater city, at the bottom of the reservoir. The story goes that the modern Atlantis was flooded, and the submerging of it led to a curse on the people above. Bones becomes convinced he needs to retrieve an item from there to lift the curse and bring happiness to Billy and Rat.