Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Review: The Canyons

Throughout The Canyons, the already-notorious new movie from director Paul Schrader and writer Bret Easton Ellis, characters talk about how they don't care about movies anymore. There are numerous shots of old theaters that are closed and abandoned. Movies are dead, Schrader is saying. To prove his point, he made The Canyons.

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
Despite the passing references to the characters' ties to the industry, the "movie" stuff in the movie does not work. It feels tacked on, like an afterthought that Schrader included once he realized he had what is mostly a glorified student film on his hands. But the commentary is sort of interesting; sure, I opened the review with a joke about movies being dead, but that is partly Schrader's point -- dead, at least, in the traditional sense. The Canyons is a low-budget indie shot digitally with crowdsourced money, starring a Hollywood reject and an adult film actor, cast through social media and being released via streaming and Video on Demand. Not one aspect of the production resembles the studio system through which Schrader came up. The old ways of doing things are just that -- the old ways. Movies are dead.

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?"
Part of the reason the movie has made headlines is because of the casting of adult film star James Deen, which of course drew snickers from many in the critical community (though I don't recall any such derision when Steven Soderbergh cast Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience). Deen is fine in the movie, but that's because his limited dramatic abilities stack up against the rest of the movie's amateurish acting, which resembles a group of college kids doing some improv exercises. He seems charismatic enough, though there is no indication that he's cut out to star in any other mainstream films. We're told again and again and Christian is magnetic, but nothing about Deen's performance suggests that. He exists only to be a dick, literally and figuratively.

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.


  1. This is as thoughtful and well-written an evisceration of a film as I've read in a long time. Well done, Patrick. It did give me a sense of morbid curiosity about the film, but once you stack my money or my time up against morbid curiosity, I'm going to go watch paint dry ten times out of ten.

    I'm just hoping that, at some point, Lohan will be able to get back on her feet. I think everyone deserves a chance to at least break even-- whether or not they capitalize on it is another story for another day.

  2. Everyone deserves a chance to break even. Damn right.