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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.
'The Canyons'
'The Canyons'

A textbook sociopath and serial cheater, Christian thinks the world is his movie and that he's directing it. From his glass house in the Hollywood Hills, he manipulates everyone below him with little regard to consequence. Playing a dissolute master of his own grisly universe, Deen is dead-sexy but efficient at best. He may be a porn actor, but he's not a movie actor. But we're never encouraged to think otherwise. With an invasive camera often unsettlingly positioned head-on, Schrader exploits his leading man's slinky sangfroid. A third act dip into sheer psychopathy is pure Bret Easton Ellis and Deen is the ideal actor to inhabit an Ellis character. He's hot, tightly coiled and with little depth, even in scenes with his therapist (played by Gus Van Sant). Those shifty bedroom eyes belie nothing. 

Because everything onscreen is so glamorous on the outside yet grotesque and troubled on the inside, "The Canyons" is the most evocative film about the soul-sucking current of Hollywood life since David Lynch's "Inland Empire." That was another intensely personal film about a woman losing herself in a role. Here Lohan is all split ends and frayed edges. The deeper the film plunges--her performance is as nervous and insecure as shaky hands in need of a cigarette-- the harder it is to tell the girl on the screen from the girl who's playing her. Tara, like someone else we know, wants the world to believe she's in control at all times, and only in private moments does her icily engineered composure reveal her inner chaos. There's a violent, fettered yet buried passion in this woman. 

In the film's centerpiece sex scene, Schrader shoots a foursome in harassing close-ups and shaded in trashy neon light as Tara finally takes control and makes emasculating demands. This sequence, prudish given the male porn star onset and at the ready (the film is unrated) has a gritty sex tape quality that draws us into the interior worlds of Lohan and her character. Sure, Tara is getting off on demanding that another guy blow her piece-of-shit boyfriend. But Lohan, too, gleefully goes for broke, knowing that if there's a moment in the film to sink her teeth in, this is it.

To the chagrin of those who love a woman on the edge, there aren't nearly enough scenes that allow Lohan to showcase her woozy mood swings, iconic smoker's rasp and her flair for drama. Her panicky, unpredictable behavior during the shoot is in evidence here. In scenes of extreme, personal vulnerability, she nails it. But when sharing the camera with rival costar Deen, Lohan's mind seems elsewhere, and there's an emotional moat around her. Still, how much can the actress be discredited for numbly portraying a woman exactly as written: dead inside?

As are all of the characters. But this is the intention of nihilists Schrader and Ellis, for whom detached moral centers are their wheelhouse. They sought to make a film about stilted ciphers sleepwalking through the lower dens of Hollywood on the slimmest of budgets, and they did exactly that. Ellis' novels such as "American Psycho" and "Less Than Zero," in which everyone is a specimen in a jar, are no different. This film has no soul. And yet.

Underneath "The Canyons"' plastic deadness rattles a broken Lohan who, poor thing, has had a bad go of it in recent years, and though she struggles, she's trying. She's really, really trying. When Tara confesses to Ryan, the man she loves but can't ever be with, that she chose Christian out of necessity, because "I really needed someone to take care of me," it's not just Tara we believe. It's Lohan. And we really believe her.

"The Canyons" hits theaters this Friday. Review roundup after the jump.

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.