Director Paul Schrader’s “The Canyons” opens up with images of what appears to be a post-apocalyptic world for cinema. Cameras glide over ghost towns of dilapidated, dying and dead movie theaters, backed by a haunted and menacing electro score. The suggestion implied is that cinema is coming to an end. Though what that has to do with vapid Angelinos in a sexual jealousy drama that transforms into an erotic thriller is anyone’s guess, apart from the filmmaker’s overt nod at his own attempts to subvert the production and distribution paradigm of movies (“The Canyons” was financed by crowdsourcing instead of traditional studio funding means). While the film is about decaying, deadened people who peripherally work in the world of movies, the connections still seem rather tenuous. What does the death of cinema have to do with these characters? Not a whole lot in the end (or in the beginning or middle), and that’s perhaps the first sign that “The Canyons” is on uneven territory from the start.
Lindsay Lohan stars as Tara, the bored plaything and girlfriend of Christian (James Deen), an aloof, manipulative and arrogant trust fund brat who only produces movies so his controlling father won’t pull the plug on his monthly inheritance. Suffering from the debilitating ennui and apathy that typically affects the rich and disaffected in a Bret Easton Ellis novel (he penned the script, naturally), Christian makes movies to get dad off his back, and he and Tara fuck strangers—men, women and couples—for kicks.
Their empty existence, however, is threatened by Ryan (Nolan Funk), a struggling actor and ex-boyfriend of Tara, who books the lead role in one of Christian’s cheap productions. “The Canyons” actually begins in medias res—Ryan and Tara have been sleeping together again, and the reason Ryan got the job in the first place was at Tara’s behest when she “suddenly” had the urge to become involved as a casting director. Gina (Amanda Brooks), Christian’s assistant, has no clue about the developing sexual triangle, but the already deceitful and mistrusting Christian quickly starts to clue in to the fact that something is amiss.
And so between fuck sessions with Tara, various partners, cheating with a yoga instructor named Cynthia (Tenille Houston) and visiting his shrink Dr. Campbell (Gus Van Sant), Christian becomes more suspicious, paranoid, Machiavellian, and insecure with jealousy and unhinged rage. Already deep in B-movie sleaze territory, “The Canyons” then full-frontally transforms into an erotic thriller with psychotic overtones. Thematically centered on control, mistrust and surveillance, while this texture is mildly interesting on paper, the cavernous emptiness of “The Canyons” cannot sustain itself, and it makes for a mostly flat, strained and uninvolving experience (not helped by the pace, which makes 90 minutes feel like a sluggish two hours).
There’s nothing wrong with deadened, cold and hollow if there’s a purpose, an aim and a killer execution. God knows, filmmaker Paul Schrader has made an entire career out of evoking empathy for those who appear beyond it; of zeroing in on the subculture underbelly of some empty lost souls with an engaging dispassion—wannabe assassins, gigolos, drug dealers, raging alcoholic sheriffs, home-porn aficionados, et al—generally with a patina of sleaze and perversity. But these trademark lurid, psychosexually natured movies of Schrader’s have had a budget and professional actors like Richard Gere, Willem Dafoe, Nastassja Kinski, Nick Nolte and more backing them.
Whereas in Schrader’s micro-budgeted cheapie, he's stuck with wooden adult film actor James Deen and celebutante Lindsay Lohan, and hampered by a cheap polish that glistens with borderline amateurishness. Written by the aforementioned sordid amoralist Bret Easton Ellis, the collaboration between Schrader, the voyeuristic documenter of the depraved, and Ellis, connoisseur of the shallow and odious, might seem like a match made in heaven. But the soulless and repugnant don’t often make for the best mix, especially when founded on top of basic compromises like cast, budget and story (the script seems hell-bent on simply having conversations in well-tailored rooms).
Blending Schrader with Ellis’ concave sensibilities, with a budget of less than $300K, with the aforementioned leads, “The Canyons” is more go-for-broke experiment than it is a film, and those disparate elements hardly ever coalesce into something potent (Brendan Canning’s throbbing, Giorgio Moroder-inspired score remains the movie's only consistently consequential element).
Christian is the ne plus ultra of Bret Easton Ellis characters—vain, shallow, vapid; a sociopathic glint in his eye that would make Patrick Bateman proud. But Deen can’t even compare to James Van Der Beek (the Ellis lead of “The Rules Of Attraction”) let alone Christian Bale (“American Psycho”) and his Christian is a two-note collection of self-satisfied insufferable sneers, smirks and one curious facial tic that looks like self-amused disdain mixed with a “who farted?” leer. Lohan, for her end, is adequate, but is far from the Gena Rowlands that Schrader thinks she is. Together with Deen, the duo don’t make for any kind of remarkable lead pair.
While not about pornography, “The Canyons” can’t help but possess that same lurid whiff of XXX material, from the crotchy, skeevy sweatiness, right down to its poor acting, tossed-off dialogue and visibly low production values (thankfully someone took the time to light this movie, however).
The narrative of “The Canyons” months before release—aside from the ugliness spilled in the press by in-fighting between Schrader and Ellis, and Lohan’s perennial unprofessional tardiness—was the new crowdsourced production model and distribution paradigm the picture takes on. Funded by Kickstarter and hitting theaters and VOD simultaneously this weekend, “The Canyons” is being closely watched by pundits, media, filmmakers and low-budget studios to see if its low-risk economics can sustain post-theatrical cinema. That’s fine and all, but what easily threatens to overshadow that conversation is the poor quality of “The Canyons,” the lousy, lost-soul characters within that you couldn't really give a damn about, and how forgettable the film turned out to be. [D]