Directed by: Paul Schrader.
Written by: Bret Easton Ellis.
Starring: Lindsay Lohan (Tara), James Deen (Christian), Nolan Funk (Ryan), Amanda Brooks (Gina), Tenille Houston (Cynthia), Gus Van Sant (Dr. Campbell).
There is a reason why Lindsay Lohan was a movie star before she became a punch line – and Paul Schrader’s The Canyons show why that is. Movie stars are often not the best actors in the world – but the ones who have that innate, un-teachable ability to draw attention to themselves, even if they’re not doing anything. This has nothing to do with looks – some gorgeous people have zero charisma on screen, and you forget about them immediately. It’s that elusive term “star quality” that no one can quite define. Lohan has that quality. She often isn’t doing very much in The Canyons – she seems to be “posing” at practically every turn in the movie. A few years of hard living have aged her – her raspy voice has only gotten more strained. And yet, Lohan is a star – or at least knows how to be one. Whenever she’s onscreen in The Canyons, I couldn’t look away.
Now, perhaps Lohan was helped by a few factors – the first being that her co-stars have almost zero personality. Porn star James Deen has the blank look of, well, a porn star. He is effective in his early scenes as his Christian isn’t required to be anything early in the film other than a spoiled, selfish sex addict – which he can play. Whenever Deen is onscreen, you get the feeling that he could go from doing just about anything to having sex in the blink of an eye – because, again, in porn, isn’t that what they do? But as the movie progresses, and the film desperately tries to add some layers to Christian – or least watch him devolve into the psychopath we initially think he maybe – Deen proves why he is in porn in the first place – he just isn’t a very good actor. The other co-star is played by Nolan Funk – and if you haven’t heard the name before, you’re not alone. He’s an unknown, and based on his blank, lifeless performance in The Canyons, he’ll probably stay that way.
The other thing that helps Lohan stand out is that the movie that surrounds her just isn’t very good. In many ways, it is a throwback to the 1980s – which isn’t surprising since much of Schrader and writer Bret Easton Ellis’ best known work, is from that decade. Everything from the visual look to the score to even the fact that Schrader and Ellis are attempting to make an “erotic thriller” at all screams 1980s. This is an extremely cynical film – perhaps even misanthropic – and it fits in nicely alongside such Ellis works as Less Than Zero or American Psycho – and is perhaps a darker version of a film like Schrader’s American Gigolo, although of all Schrader’s films, it’s probably most similar to Auto Focus (2002) about the lonely, empty life of TV’s Bob Crane – who was murdered after years of wallowing in sex addiction.
The film centers on yet another of Ellis’ patented dead inside, spoiled rich kids. Deen’s Christian doesn’t do anything, and doesn’t want to do anything – but he’s financing a low budget slasher film to get daddy off his back about not doing anything. All he wants to do is connect with strangers on the internet, and get them to come over to his mansion and engage in anonymous sex with him and his girlfriend Tara (Lohan). The movie opens with a dinner with Christian, Tara and Christian’s assistant Gina (Amanda Brooks) and her boyfriend Ryan (Funk) – an “actor” who works as a bartender because he cannot get acting jobs. But Gina has gotten him cast in the slasher movie. It isn’t long before we discover that Ryan used to date Tara – and now they’ve been conducting an affair behind their significant others backs for the last month. Tara left because she wanted security and money – and Ryan was never going to be able to offer that. Christian really shouldn’t care about Tara’s affair – after all, they engage in anonymous sex all the time, and he’s having his own affair with Cynthia (Tenille Houstan) – but Christian needs to be in control. The entire movie actually hinges on a four way sex scene involving Christian, Tara and two people we never see in another scene in the movie, where Tara turns the tables on him – and he realizes that she is actually in control. This is what makes him devolve into the violent psycho we know from the beginning of the movie he will become.
It would be easy to sneer at The Canyons – to dismiss as having a “cold deadness” to it, as one staffer at a film festival said when they rejected the film. Or to simply say it manages to be both over the top and ridiculous and dull at the same time. After all, in a movie with this much sex and violence in it, you would at least think it had the makings of a guilty pleasure, right? And there’s very little joy to be had in watching The Canyons.
Yet all of that seems to be deliberate on the parts of Schrader and Ellis. Surely, these two very talented men could have made a guilty pleasure, erotic thriller had they wanted to. They didn’t want to – the deadness to the film is not a flaw, but an artistic choice. The movie shows, at various points, a bunch of old, abandoned, dilapidated movie theaters – and in one particularly on the nose scene, has Lohan pretty much dismiss movies altogether. The point seems to be that the characters, still involved in the movie industry, are dead inside, and the industry itself is dead or dying. Schrader has pretty much said as much multiple times over the last decade or so – and Ellis’ cynicism stretches back to the 1980s.
So no, it’s not the cold, deadness of The Canyons that ultimately sinks the movie – it’s the fact that Schrader and Ellis don’t really have much of any real interest to say about the characters in their movie other than the most obvious, surface level observation. None of the characters in the movie is the least bit sympathetic – which wouldn’t be a problem if they were even remotely interesting. Good actors, or movie stars, may have been able to paper over the wafer thin characters – Lohan certainly manages the trick pretty well throughout the movie. But Deen and Funk aren’t able to muster anything of interest.
I took some heat last year for liking David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis – which is a film whose themes aren’t all that dissimilar to those raised in The Canyons – and features a similar performance of that by Lohan in this movie by Robert Pattinson. I’m still not sure if either of these people can actually act (in Lohan’s case, it’s a question of whether she can STILL act, as at one she certainly could). But they hold the screen – they are interesting screen presences, in The Canyons and Cosmopolis, they are excellent as the dead inside characters they are playing. The difference between The Canyons and Cosmopolis, is that Cronenberg’s film was fascinating and engrossing on a scene by scene basis – the conversations were deliberating distancing, but extremely well acted by the characters, and the deadness of that film seemed appropriate given the Wall Street subject matter. I may not have liked any of the characters in Cosmopolis – but they fascinated me, and had something to say, and the film’s points about money and power were appropriate. That is what The Canyons is missing – a reason to spend time with its emotionally dead characters or take what the film is saying about the film industry seriously. I respect what Schrader and Ellis were trying to accomplish with The Canyons – and admired Lohan’s performance in the movie, which is as good as could be expected – but ultimately I think they come quite far short of their aim.