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Review and Roundup: In Defense of Paul Schrader's Misunderstood 'The Canyons'

Photo of Ryan Lattanzio By Ryan Lattanzio | TOH! August 1, 2013 at 3:54PM

Like the film's infamously trying production and its central character Tara -- who Lindsay Lohan acts the hell out of -- "Canyons" careens wildly from one extreme to the next. But it isn't just so-bad-it's-good kitsch. "The Canyons" ultimately is good, hard to admire, yes, but harder to look away from.
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Lindsay Lohan in "The Canyons"
Lindsay Lohan in "The Canyons"

"The Canyons" never had a chance. 

Several things led people to make up their minds about it before there was even a release date. The New York Times Magazine profile of the film's production flayed star Lindsay Lohan from the inside out. The frustrated remarks of director Paul Schrader and screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis didn't help, nor did the film's repeated rejection from festivals. But the movie deserves to be checked out with an open mind. This low-budget thriller, while brazenly flawed, is never boring. And for the record, Lindsay Lohan, terror-stricken and hanging by a thread, has never been better.

On any other film, the plague of misfortune that befell "The Canyons" might seem like an elaborate trick, a publicity stunt conceived to cook up controversy and fill seats. But Schrader's dogged refusal to conform to the expectations of hype and his earnest commitment to the $250,000 project lend this brouhaha real authenticity. Remember, this is the screenwriter of "Raging Bull" and "Taxi Driver," and the director of 17 major films.

A lurid melodrama about beautiful people doing very bad things in the unforgiving environs of Hollywood, "The Canyons" is not a total success. It's an uneven but near-great film, boasting serious talent, and along its nihilistic path it casts an artfully anesthetizing spell. Like the film's infamously trying production and its central character Tara -- who Lohan acts the hell out of -- "Canyons" careens wildly from one extreme to the next. 

But it isn't just so-bad-it's-good kitsch. "The Canyons" ultimately is good, hard to admire, yes, but harder to look away from. And like another misunderstood, ennui-soaked arthouse indie in current release, Nicholas Winding Refn's "Only God Forgives," "The Canyons" could wind up as a midnight movie and mythological cinematic artifact.

Christian (James Deen) is a spoiled trust fund brat who indulges in producing B-rate slasher movies, which star his live-in actress girlfriend Tara (Lohan). In the ethereally lensed opening scene, they're at dinner with fellow wannabe actors Gina (Amanda Brooks) and Ryan (Nolan Funk). Everyone's on their smartphones, barely invested in whatever inane conversation they're having, when Christian tunes in to the chemistry Tara and Ryan appear to be telegraphing. Tara claims she's never met him before, but we eventually learn that Tara and Ryan do in fact know each other: they have history. When Christian, devoutly misogynistic and devoid of conscience, confirms this information, he goes out for blood, one-by-one denuding the identities of everyone in his lifeless inner circle.

Though he keeps her on a leash, Christian won't admit that Tara -- love-starved and loyal, but knowing -- is his girlfriend. He says it's more fun to keep things complicated. By this he means bringing outside parties into their sex life, strangers he meets on a dating app. Tara, eager to please, indulges Christian's fascination with threesomes and goes as far as letting him film the encounters.

This article is related to: The Canyons, Paul Schrader, Bret Easton Ellis, Lindsay Lohan, James Deen


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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.