Director: Paul Schrader
Writer: Bret Easton Ellis
Stars: Lindsay Lohan, James Deen, Nolan Gerard Funk
Motion Picture Rating: R
Runtime: 99 minutes
I cannot remember when I first heard of this film, but it was a long while before I saw it. The hype was significant as soon as director Paul Schrader and writer Bret Easton Ellis came together. Their film was bankrolled by crowd funding, to be shot fast on commonplace digital equipment, with a male porn star as the lead and to feature rehab queen Lindsay Lohan. It was almost too much to process. The context, storyline and casting were unreal. I, like many others, could sense a car crash on the horizon.
Unfortunately for the film-makers, the opening of The Canyons proves all doubters right. A pivotal dinner scene with the 4 main characters – Christian (James Deen), Tara (Lindsay Lohan), Ryan (Nolan Funk) and Gina (Amanda Brooks) – is so badly lit, scripted and acted that it feels like a hoax. Are the film-makers being deliberately bad? Were Schrader and Ellis playing us all that time? Why else have porn star Deen, completely out of his depth with his clothes on, and battling addict Lohan sit and spout preposterous dialogue for 5 minutes. It is cringe-worthy.
Christian, as it happens, is living with Tara and funding a new movie to star Ryan and being produced by Gina. Tara was influential in casting Ryan (her ex-boyfriend) and Gina is also Christian’s personal assistant. The 4 of them have overlapping lives, but it’s Christian, with his substantial trust fund and self-confidence, around whom they orbit. It is the destructive and poisonous relationship between Christian and Tara that centres the film. He likes to film her having sex with strangers and she is seemingly OK with that whilst he puts a very expensive roof over her head. It’s that type of relationship. And there is a fair amount of sex and voyeurism on display.
Exactly what Schrader and Easton Ellis are trying to do and to say with The Canyons is not clear. They have talked about ‘re-inventing’ cinema with this low budget, quick and open production, but that’s not the case. They achieve some high quality shots considering the budget and equipment, but it still feels amateurish. The story is old hat and they borrow from other films (such as Body Double by Brian de Palma). The premise of young, amoral and wealthy Americans deadened by modern digital life was addressed by Don Jon, The Bling Ring and by Spring Breakers (all reviewed on SSR.com).
The most interesting aspect of this is Lindsay Lohan’s participation. She looks shocking and she acts with real pain. It is uncomfortable to watch. The plastic surgery and addictions have aged her to quite an extraordinary degree and there is something desperate and sad about her appearance in this provocative nonsense. The film-makers want to comment on the death of cinema – hence the inclusion of stills of closed theatres throughout and quotes from Christian such as “we are all actors now” – but with Lohan they have a living embodiment of said decay. She is Norma Desmond. She looks haunted and yet still puts in a solid performance. It’s about all that The Canyons has to offer.