Did The Canyons ever stand a chance? A scathing New York Times piece on the making of the movie from earlier this year detailed a nightmare production, most of which (according to the article) was laid at the feet of the movie's unstable star, Lindsay Lohan. Once the piece was online, everyone began sharpening their knives even more, hoping that the movie would be every bit the trainwreck that the Times made it out to be. Schrader and his cast have the deck stacked against them before anyone even saw the film. It's not fair that critics decide they don't like the movie without seeing it. There is so much to not like once they do.
Lohan plays Tara, the socialite girlfriend of Christian (porn star James Deen), a sociopathic trust fund kid who moonlights as a movie producer. When it comes out that Ryan (Nolan Gerard Funk), one of the actors on the movie, used to date Tara, Christian gets all jealous and crazy. There is no more plot than that. At all.
As a writer and director, Schrader has always been interested in characters looking for salvation as their souls rot -- think Taxi Driver, Bringing Out the Dead, the underrated Auto Focus. The problem is that in The Canyons, Schrader is working from a script by Bret Easton Ellis, a writer who is not interested in people. Ellis sides with the rot. He falls back on all his old tricks here: shallow characters having vapid conversations in big, expensive houses. They have empty sex. Maybe they do drugs. Eventually there is some violence. I would say that Ellis has his formula down to a science, but that would imply that there is a science to being a hack.
|This is as thrilling as the movie gets|
If only these artistic statements were in the service of a movie that is the least bit compelling, but somehow The Canyons manages to make even trash and sleaze feel completely boring. It's the kind of vapid movie that's too shallow to even be about vapidity. Ellis' idea of drama is having characters argue and call each other names. Sometimes it's characters looking for each other's cell phones. In one of the worst scenes in the movie, Christian visits his psychotherapist (Gus Van Sant, losing a bet) and literally speaks every bit of possible subtext present in the scene prior -- a four-way sex scene between Lohan, Deen and another couple.
Before you read "FOUR WAY SEX SCENE" and run off to watch the movie without even bothering to read the rest of the review, it should be pointed out that the sex scene is also terrible. It's not sexy, but it's not supposed to be. I suspect that everyone involved thought they were being "deep" by showing Lohan reclaim the power in the scene -- in a movie in which women are degraded, abused, raped and humiliated in just about every scene, this is the one moment where one gets to be in control. It's just as stupid and obvious as the rest of the movie, though, confirming that Ellis still believes people use only sex to establish power. At one point. Lohan looks right at the camera; I guess this is Schrader's attempt to acknowledge that he's in on cheap stupidity of it. Lohan's surgically-altered face breaks the fourth wall: "Can you believe this shit?"
But the real fascination of the movie is Lindsay Lohan. I'd be lying if I didn't spend a lot of the movie feeling sad for what has become of her, once such a promising young actress and now a troubled, washed-up mess. Her face is plastic and disturbing, her makeup too heavy, her voice thick with the rasp of too many Virginia Slims. Everything about her performance in The Canyons comments on the tragedy of her own life. She is humiliated and abused. She cries and acts desperate. Her very appearance in this movie, coupled with the profile of her in that New York Times piece, suggests a young woman with no choice but to debase herself to subsidize a certain kind of lifestyle. When Tara breaks down at the end of the movie, it's hard to tell if we're watching a performance or just finally seeing Lohan come to terms with what has become of her life.
Ellis, always the class A douchebag, has already distanced himself from the movie by claiming that Schrader fucked up his script. I have seen The Canyons, and there is no way that's possible. Anything that works in the movie is because of Schrader, who at least attempts to add a layer of self-aware commentary over the proceedings. Yes, most of it is pretentious and some of it laughable, but at least he tries to find art in all the bullshit.
The Canyons had the chance to be something special. Probably not good, but at least special. It's a true independent, made unconventionally with a genuine artist at the helm. Unfortunately, all of that opportunity is squandered -- the movie doesn't even have the good sense to be trashy fun, much less interesting art. It's a shallow, stupid movie about absolutely nothing. As trainwrecks go, it's a huge drag.
The Canyons is available on VOD beginning August 2 and in limited theatrical release beginning August 9.