Actor Ryan Gosling's debut as director/screenwriter is a strange little urban fable that mixes social realism with a fairytale curse. Infused with homages to Gosling's directorial influences, notably Nicolas Winding Refn and David Lynch, it's set in a post-industrial town (it makes good use of the ruin porn landscapes of Detroit) blighted by the construction of a reservoir. Bones (Iain De Caestecker), scuffling a living by stripping copper piping from abandoned buildings, runs foul of Bully (Matt Smith, with a shaven head and a muscle T-shirt), who sits in an armchair strapped to the back of an open-top Cadillac, chauffeured by his mutilated henchman and using a bullhorn to tell everyone that the town is his. Meanwhile, Bones' mother (Christina Hendricks) tries to save the family home from foreclosure and demolition by taking up a job in a nightclub run by the bank manager who refuses to extend her credit, and Bones learns about the curse and how it might be lifted from goth-girl-next-door Rat (Saoirse Ronan).
This slight story is infused with a striking dreamlike quality, enhanced by Johnny Jewel's synth soundtrack and cinematographer Benoît Debie's feverish photography. The club, where performers (including Eva Mendes and scream queen Barbara Steele) fake bloody mutilations and death for the delectation of jaded yuppies, and women can earn extra in the glowing purple basement, is straight out of Lynchland; there's some lovely imagery of burning bicycles, the hell-mouth entrance of the club, a line of streetlights receding into a lake, and lingering shots of decaying houses, graffitied factories and the overgrown ruins of a zoo; Christina Hendricks, although mired in ruinous poverty, is always immaculately dressed. And although the urban dystopia is clearly early twenty-first century, the rite-of-passage struggle between Bones and Bully, in a criminal milieu lacking both guns and drugs, is reminiscent of Frances Ford Coppola's adaptations of S.E. Hinton's Rumble Fish and The Outsiders. The story's climax, in which Bones rides to the rescue of both his mother and Rat, seems both trivial and abrupt after the brooding build-up, but Gosling's evocation of the uncanny lingers.