Ryan Gosling has, at this point in his acting career, learned plenty about directing and producing. Perhaps this is what prompted him to finally take his fingers to the keyboard and write the surreal, dystopic Lost River.
With its eerie, Suspiria-like score (courtesy of the Italians Do It Better label), Lost River unfolds like a small town mystery with a Twin Peaks edge. After a bayou-looking town near Detroit is deliberately flooded to become known only as Lost River, Billy (Christina Hendricks) must find a way to make ends meet after her bank manager--as well as the father of her sons--is removed by the nefarious Dave (Ben Mendelsohn). Preying on Billy's desperation to pay off her house as a single mother of Bones (Iain De Caestecker) and Franky (Landyn Stewart), Dave suggests a job to her at a burlesque-like venue with a gory show starring Kitty Cat (Eva Mendes), who delights audiences with displays of fake murder and spewing blood.
On the way to taking Billy to her act, her cab driver (Reda Kateb) muses, "When I told my friends I was going to America, they said 'There's so much money there. You're going to have a big car and a big house and you're gonna catch the money on the floor.'" The irony is not lost on Billy, who is about to sell herself in a very weird way. In addition to honing her own act pretending to peel her face off, she is also introduced to the world of "the shells," where the most money can be made. All she has to do is stand inside a locked human-shaped shell and let the person paying do whatever they want outside of it.
Meanwhile, Bones has his own issues with moneymaking to contend with, invoking the ire of local bully, Bully (Matt Smith)--yes, quite a literal moniker. Stripping abandoned houses of their copper in order to make a bit of extra cash, Bones easily offends Bully, who has laid claim to the entire town. And how has he done so? By cutting off people's lips with scissors when they defy him (this is perhaps the most Only God Forgives element of all). Luckily, Bones has a cohort and comrade in Rat (Saoirse Ronan), his neighbor who is called such because she owns a pet rat named Nick. All alone except for her mute grandmother, Rat stays up most nights singing a lonesome sort of song called "Tell Me." She shows Bones a hokey "educational video" about the reasons why the town needed to have a reservoir, and tells him that the only way to break what she calls the curse is to take a piece of the town's land from the bottom of the water.
The creepiness in Billy's life begins to intensify as well, with her character's fate seeming to mirror Christina Hendricks' other alter ego, Joan Harris, in that she can't seem to go about her job without being sexually harassed, mainly by Dave. One night, after bringing Franky with her to work, Dave tells her its "not very sexy" and asks that she never does it again. Afterward, he gets on stage to sing, making his own salient comment that refers to the American dream: "There are some basic human needs. We try to cater to some of them, we can't get all of them." Though, in this case, he is making reference to his lascivious desires for Billy, it is still part of Gosling's underlying theme that there is something inherently flawed about American perception and expectation.
Fighting to stay in a town that clearly doesn't seem to want them, Billy, Bones and Rat ultimately seem to come to the conclusion that, to quote Rat's educational film about the reservoir, "A family is what makes a home." Therefore, it's okay to let go of the one you've worked to make for yourself.