When people talk about The Canyons, they rarely talk about the film itself. It’s a movie which has become infamous not for its content, but for its unusual conception, cast, and its troubled production. The film, directed by cinema legend Paul Schrader, was born publically over Twitter by acclaimed-author-come-social-media-troll Bret Easton Ellis, who also funded the production. The media paid attention when the cast was announced, with porn star James Deen as the male lead and – stranger still – washed up tabloid-generator Lindsay Lohan starring beside him. On paper, the teaming of Schrader and Ellis is fantastic: both are creative men who explore the darker elements of American life, and both have had their share of classics over the years. Even the stunt casting could have worked; there’s something exploitative gained from having a real-life porn star in your movie, and Tarantino has proved that has-been actors can make a stunning comeback if given the right material. The production was difficult to say the least, and critics have been expecting the worse, but now that the dust has settled and the movie is out, how does it hold up as an actual film?
The film follows rich LA movie producer Christian (Deen) looking to cast hunky actor Ryan (Nolan Gerard Funk) in an upcoming film. Unbeknownst to Christian, his girlfriend Tara (Lohan) is having an affair with Ryan – though Christian himself is having his own affair with yoga teacher Cynthia (Tenille Houston), who in turn may have been involved with Ryan. Everyone is having affairs, and everyone is betraying each other. As the various parties learn the truth, things get darker.
It’s easy to see what Schrader is going for here. The movie opens with shots of abandoned, run down movie theatres. Characters talk dismissively of cinema throughout. There’s a sense that cinema has reached its nadir – creativity is dead, and there’s only space for cynical, empty movies like The Canyons now. Taken as a whole and judged in this sense, the movie itself is a comment on what Schrader sees as the decline of modern cinema. Unfortunately, this is an egotistical, and frankly misjudged view, and the opening shots in particular are too trite to be good commentary; it’s a little too on the nose to really work.
The idea though is to make an exploitive, bitter little thriller about horrid people, a stunt-movie as opposed to one made for any real reason; it’s lack of reason to exist is essentially the point of it. And in some senses the film succeeds with this. The problem is that the movie’s cynical view isn’t new or smart, and has been done considerably better in the past – Schrader’s Taxi Driver, written in the 70s, says similar things and says them in a more mature and intelligent way. Likewise, all of Easton’s novels outweigh and outrun this. If you want a comment on the dead-eyed LA scene, go read Less than Zero.
The problem is that, even as exploitive, deliberate trash, the movie doesn’t work. Compare it to The Paperboy, a movie which aims for a similar tone and succeeds in ways that The Canyons doesn’t; The Paperboy revels in its filth and is far more entertaining to watch. The Canyons, sadly, is boring, and that’s its most damning feature. Watching these characters destroy themselves should be far more compelling than it is, but the weak dialogue and Schrader’s directing never sell them to us. We shouldn’t have to care about these characters or even like them, but we should want to roll around in their decadent mess with them. The opening restaurant scene is a good example of what’s wrong with the movie; it’s just so banal and redundant, in narrative terms there’s no reason for it. The movie is full of scenes like this. Even the big four way girl-on-girl and guy-on-guy sex scene is shot clumsily; these are the kinds of scenes the movie should be all about, yet Schrader doesn’t seem particularly interested in them It says a lot when the orgy scene is boring. And by the time the thriller plot rolls around, it’s hard to care anymore.
Lohan does surprisingly well here. People tend to forget that back in the day, she was a decent actress, and despite her dramas and diva personae, she gives a poisonous, bored performance here, which is exactly what the character needs. She’s the only one involved in the production who seems to get it. It’s noticeable that she runs rings around the rest of the cast – Funk and Houstan are bland, and Deen, for all the stunt casting behind him, has no screen-presence and delivers his lines dreadfully. His porn-roots allow for more male full frontal nudity than your average movie but that’s about it.
The Canyons isn’t a train-wreck, as that would imply it’s more fascinating to watch than it is. It’s frankly, and sadly, after all the production issues and media frenzy, a dull, forgettable movie which doesn’t really know what to do with itself. It’s interesting as a whole, but watching it is no fun at all.