Sorry, Schrader: "The Canyons" isn’t that deep

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Aug. 7, 2013

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“I guess movies just aren’t my thing anymore,” croaks Lindsay Lohan, looking at least twice her age and setting the tone of this curdled epitaph for the death of cinema that’s by turns audacious and annoying. Another one of those films that’s far more interesting to think and talk about than it is to actually sit through, The Canyons is a micro-budget experiment from legendary outsider Paul Schrader and past-his-prime provocateur Bret Easton Ellis. Framed by and occasionally punctuated with stark black and white still photos of shuttered movie-houses gone to rot, it’s about a party that was over a long time ago.

Conceived as “cinema for the post-theatrical era,” The Canyons was financed from the filmmakers’ own pockets and through the crowd-funding website Kickstarter. The three-ring circus of a production proceeded with complete transparency on social media, as well as in a compulsively readable all-access New York Times magazine piece unfortunately headlined: “Here Is What Happens When You Cast Lindsay Lohan In Your Movie.” The picture eventually bypassed all but one of those run-down theatres it depicts and debuted last weekend to impressive nationwide numbers via Video On Demand platforms. Because after all, as the characters keep asking: “When was the last time you went to a movie?” 

That these folks happen to be working in the film industry says it all about The Canyons, scripted by Ellis as yet another one of his by now seemingly interchangeable autopsies of a generation numb, dumb and full of cum. Lohan’s Tara had a good thing once with Ryan (Nolan Funk), but he was broke and she likes nice things, so she attached herself like a barnacle to Christian (porn star James Deen), a swaggering trust fund brat who dabbles in producing low budget slasher flicks but obviously couldn’t give a damn about anything beyond his prodigious cock. 

All these blank yoga instructors, personal assistants and professional hangers-on idle around in lavish locations all day, having inane non-conversations during which nobody looks up from their smart-phones very often, and at night, Christian shoots videos of Tara having sex with strangers he’s procured from online hookup apps. 

As framed by Schrader and cinematographer John DeFazio with a concise, formalist discipline that’s rather astounding considering the movie’s miniscule budget, The Canyons works for at least a little while as a chilling vision of post-millennial malaise. It reminded me more than once of The Bling Ring, Sofia Coppola’s evocative misfire from earlier this summer, that likewise captured a very specific anomie without ever quite figuring out how to make it into a movie. 

Thing is, Schrader already pulled this off 30 years ago when he rendered glossy sexed-up Los Angeles as a purgatorial wasteland in American Gigolo. Starting out with his screenplays for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull all the way up through 2002’s Auto Focus (the underrated biopic of Hogan’s Heroes star and murdered sex addict Bob Crane he directed), Schrader’s characters have always been in the mad grip of compulsions they cannot control, and driven by spiritual yearnings they cannot articulate. 

Despite their shared affinity for pornography, Schrader is a bad match for Bret Easton Ellis, who, as far as I can tell, has rewritten Less Than Zero over and over again for his entire career—people in the grip of nothing but boredom and disconnection. They’re not capable of yearning. Eventually, Ellis just gives up about halfway through The Canyons and starts rehashing scenes from American Psycho

As the picture hunkers down into dopey thriller territory, Schrader doesn’t get much more wiggle room to indulge in his “cinema is dead” flourishes, save for maybe some loving shots of discarded DVDs at Amoeba Music. What he does still have, however, is his spectacularly ruined star.

I don’t know if what Lohan does in The Canyons could technically be called “a great performance,” but every gesture is suffused with such aching desperation and regret that it’s impossible to take your eyes off her. Peering out from smeared Cleopatra eyeliner and looking every bit like a monument to squandered, long-gone promise, she serves the same purpose as those boarded-up cinemas Schrader keeps cutting back to: illustrating the shambles of Hollywood dreams.

To call her co-stars amateurish would be an act of enormous charity; anyone saying a line professionally may stand out in such an undistinguished crowd. But there’s still something ineffable about Lohan, even after all that bad mileage. In the notorious climactic four-way sex scene, her Tara finally stands up to Christian’s abuses, with a subversive maneuver that a better Schrader movie would have investigated more thoroughly, instead of fleeing from it the way The Canyons does.

So, yes—here is what happens when you cast Lindsay Lohan in your movie.

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