Given all the pre-release hoopla surrounding its creation (which you can get from this handy 11 page New York Times article if you need to be brought up to speed), it’s nothing short of astounding that Paul Schrader and Bret Easton Ellis’ The Canyons manages to be considerably better than the all encompassing black hole of sadness and shame early reports made it out to be. Is it any good overall? Not really, but there’s more than enough here to suggest that mostly everyone was on the right track.
Christian (prolific porn star James Deen) is a spoiled young brat in danger of losing his trust funded livelihood. He’s been shacking up with a burnt out actress named Tara (Lindsay Lohan) and making iPhone porn videos on the side for some extra cash. Christian’s big plan is to produce a cheap slasher film to dupe his daddy into thinking he’s actually working. Christian casts Ryan (Canadian actor Nolan Funk), a kid from Michigan now trying to make it in L.A. as an actor. A cog in Christian’s plans arises when he realizes that Tara and Ryan were an item at one point, but he doesn’t immediately realize they have been screwing around behind his back for months. Neither does Gina (Amanda Brooks), who just so happens to be Christian’s PR rep AND Ryan’s current girlfriend. Making things even messier is another former sexual acquaintance of both men (Tenille Houston) who may or may not be trying to ruin Christian. A massive and potentially deadly power play ensues between all involved.
If you got all that or can at least glean it from the somewhat fast pace of the film, The Canyons is pretty easy to understand on a narrative level. It’s a modern soap opera informed by the convoluted reality television addled world Schrader and Ellis seem to be blaming their recent misfortunes on. It’s a giant middle finger to shows like The Hills, which they’re both clearly aping in terms of tone and style, even if Schrader uses Ellis’ typically shallow script to create a jumping off point for larger themes.
It’s no surprise that the film has a decidedly cynical, but not altogether wrongheaded, tone. Using shots of dilapidated and long since shuttered movie house to bookend the film and announce act breaks just underlines how the production was seemingly made for VOD. It’s pointedly underlining how Schrader and Ellis are simply giving the new audience exactly the kind of bloodlust they think the audience craves. It’s cinematic, but not made for cinemas.
Christian seems to remind the audience every several minutes that he’s working on a film that will probably never be made. Tara gets pressured to work on film, but she never actually wants to do it. Ryan is eager to work, but it’s mostly to make money and be closer to the people he loves and cares for. Gina likes the industry itself, but aside from scheduling all of Christian’s appointments for him, it’s not like she actually does anything. They are the new Hollywood as seen through the eyes of a disdainful pair of old guard pros that are clearly bitter that they almost never got to make this particular movie in the first place, either.
As the first half goes on, Ellis sets up a messy love triangle that’s gone out of control, but without losing sight of the film’s overarching themes. Aside from a critique of the very industry that surrounds him that conforms to the same kind of style and sleazy substance that he’s made his nest egg from, there’s something really interesting to be said about the difference between living with an actual degree of security versus simply thinking everything will always be there for you. Tara and Ryan are ultimately tragic figures trapped in an industry that fakes its love for others and only creates lust for money and power. It’s sad, but the characters themselves are rich enough to garner actual sympathy in the light of their indiscretions.
For all the busses she’s been thrown under (both deservedly and undeservedly), I certainly hope Lohan has earned a lifelong transit pass by now. Despite anything people might have heard about her behaviour, she’s actually quite good. It might be because this is exactly the kind of role made for someone like her. She’s frail, angry, confused, and above everything else, just burnt out to a point where she doesn’t want to be around anyone. Lohan is nothing if not smart for playing someone fully aware of the angles and motives of those around her. She gets the material and the performance is consistent with the tone of the film.As for Deen, his experience playing plenty of already established fictional characters in porn, he keenly turns Christian into a reflection of Schrader and Ellis’ already darkest impulses. It’s a smirking, knowing caricature of excess that only this duo could have created. He’s an oversexed, overstimulated, silver spoon type, but he also fancies himself as a creative force to be reckoned with. As the movie Christian tries to make keeps falling through, Deen slips into a genuinely chilling picture of cockiness and unearned bravado. Again, the role is made exactly for someone with his particular set of skills. With a few sly, fourth wall breaking stares into the audience in the beginning, he’s literally making love to the camera and seducing those behind it despite being completely repulsive in every way.
But while Deen and Lohan are fine, the rest of the film ultimately gets away from Ellis and it’s up to Schrader to keep it grounded. If the first half of the film sets up an interesting story, the second half starts to become an overplotted mess with somewhat forced paranoia that’s seemingly used only as a means to an end. Things start to get sped up and the scenes as they are written begin to make less and less sense with pretty huge lapses in logic and character coming into play. Instead of being paced like the modern day Edward Albee play it so desperately wants to be, it throws nuance to the wind in a mad dash to just get to the film’s violent conclusion. The violence makes sense. The ultimate circumstances and motives do not. It’s impulsive in the wrong sort of way, leading to a lack of focus that Schrader, despite all his talents as a crafter of suspense and drama, simply can’t direct his way out of.
The narrative is the problem and not the cast. While some might not get the joke that everyone here is overly made up, vapid, excessive, and reading everything with a smug degree of self importance, it’s all vastly preferable to the point where the film simply stops making much sense. It becomes a poorly edited film that seems to be skipping over huge chunks of narrative to simply reach a point where it can all be over and done with. It’s almost like there was something in there at one point that wasn’t working, but it seems like excising whatever it was isn’t making things much better.
The Canyons isn’t awful, and it’s clear from the tone and structure that Schrader wants the audience to catch it at home on VOD rather than in a theatre. He’s pretty much flat out saying “If this is the kind of film you want, then just don’t go to the movies.” It’s a provocation, and it’s kind of sad that it didn’t turn out better than this. What started as an ambitious Kickstarter funded project evolved into a runaway train tailed by ambulance chasers. Then watching the film it’s easy to see why there was interesting in the material until you get to the second half. It’s unforgettable overall, but it’s neither a disaster nor a misunderstood classic. In short, it’s much like every other film to litter the out of business theatres that permeate Schrader’s own film.