The Canyons (2013)
100 min., not rated (but equivalent to NC-17).
With its bad pre-release buzz and an in-depth behind-the-scenes article in the New York Times revolving around co-star Lindsay Lohan who either showed up late to call time or didn't show up at all, "The Canyons" was being gunned for before anyone even saw the finished product. Conceptually, a Kickstarter-funded collaboration between director Paul Schrader ("Auto Focus" and "American Gigolo") and writer Bret Easton Ellis (whose novels "Less Than Zero," "American Psycho," "The Rules of Attraction," and "The Informers" all became movies) could have risen above the controversy and produced something effectively edgy or at least interesting. Ellis obviously knows a thing or two about amoral, narcissistic vapidity and a dark, seedy underbelly, but "The Canyons" isn't far off from being a less technically inept "The Room," a self-parody of his past works, or even soft-core porn on Cinemax.
Lohan plays Tara, a bored live-in trophy girlfriend to smarmy, egocentric trust-fund brat Christian (James Deen), who takes care of her in his modern Hollywood Hills home so she can spend her days poolside and go shopping at the Century City mall. Christian is really the possessive puppet master of Tara and sends a hooded guy to follow her when she goes out but also invites online strangers over to make "home movies" and sleeps with yoga instructor Cynthia (Tenille Houston) on the side. He trusts his girlfriend's judgment in casting hunky, struggling hotel bartender Ryan (Nolan Funk) for a low-budget slasher flick he's bankrolling to be shot in New Mexico. As we find out, Tara and Ryan used to be an item three years ago, unbeknownst to Ryan's new girl and Christian's production assistant, Gina (Amanda Brooks), and then they start sending each other secret text messages and having trysts. It becomes obvious that Christian's movie is never going to get made, but things soon come to a head for everyone involved.
Director Schrader reportedly explained that "The Canyons" is "a movie about twentysomethings in Los Angeles who got in line to see a movie and then the theater closed but they stayed in line because they had nowhere else to go…" Opening with a succession of snapshots of shuttered, abandoned movie theaters, it becomes clear that this is intended to be a social critique or an artistic, metaphorical statement on the death of cinema or perhaps Hollywood itself. Even in a scene over lunch at a Sunset Plaza restaurant, Lohan's Tara asks Gina, "Do you really like movies? When's the last time you went to see a movie in a theater? A movie that really meant something to you?" That's a provocative idea and all, but it comes off highfalutin when the execution of that intended idea is so empty. When getting to the meat of "The Canyons," it just plays like a trashy, fairly convoluted soap opera of dangerous liaisons, betrayal, and murder. Los Angeles must be a small town because everyone's screwing everyone and everyone's screwing over everyone.
For a low-budget film that cost $250,000 to make, it looks it. Then again, aside from a few washed-out shots and awkward, unmotivated camera movements, John DeFazio's cinematography does have a vivid, chilly dreaminess, especially in a foursome Christian and Tara partake in with disco lights. Whether it be the script or the editing, the film clumsily shifts from scene to scene at times, but it is the writing's fault that every time the attractive cast opens its mouth, the dialogue is (intentionally?) stilted. Schrader's direction isn't much better; for example, take the poorly staged, bone-headedly thought-out scene where Tara wakes up to look for her phone, trying not to wake Christian, and knocks over a water bottle she catches just in time. Casting the bruised, bleary-eyed, husky-voiced Lohan (who has a co-producing credit) was a coup, though. The actress makes a comeback of sorts, looking like a damaged Elizabeth Taylor or Marilyn Monroe in her severe mascara, eye make-up, and lipstick. Blurring the line between reality and performance, Lohan seems to put her real troubled life into this character's troubled life, turning in a raw, emotionally available perf as a vacant, broken soul. She even complains to Christian about wanting to keep some aspects of her life private, which is just one of the parallels to the tabloid victim. Making his actual acting debut after appearing in more than 4,000 adult movies, porn star Deen registers appropriately as a sneering, soulless sociopath. As Christian, he has a devilish, detached demeanor that is pretty magnetic to watch.
While it is perversely watchable, "The Canyons" is no more than a curio, a vitriolic, rather insipid look at entitled, dead-eyed Angelenos that can't be confused for resembling a work of art, although it was probably meant to be. In the final analysis, what is the takeaway? Are we supposed to care what happens to Tara, Christian, and Ryan? Or, are the snippets of decrepit multiplexes supposed to allow us to see the film on a deeper, more intellectual level? Without being a campy train wreck, "The Canyons" still fails on both counts, as if it's too bored with itself, but, hey, the first official trailer looked electrifying and Lohan apologists can rejoice. Now, she just needs to get her act together.