Published on August 14th, 2013 | by Brendan Flaherty1
It’s hard to get a handle on The Canyons, one of those rare films able to develop a reputation (though not necessarily a good one) based solely on a few names of those involved. Yes, it’s that Lindsay Lohan comeback attempt you have heard about. Yes, it’s that one that was written by Bret Easton Ellis, twitter tantrum-thrower and cult-classic novelist/wünkerkind. Yes, it’s that one directed by Paul Schrader, the screenwriter of many of Martin Scorcese’s best films and a well-regarded (at least at one time) filmmaker in his own right. Yes, it’s that one with James Deen, a male porn star (excuse me, adult performer) playing the other lead role. These are the only facts that anyone seems willing to cite in regards to this dubious motion picture, and it’s easy to see why: it’s hard to get a handle on anything else.
Beyond the ramifications of its success/failure for those primarily involved in its production, The Canyons is at its core an ambitious project. It’s not hard to tell from the stylized images of deserted movie theatres displayed in the opening credits that this is a movie that is going to say something important. Hollywood has a long tradition of holding a mirror to itself in the attempt to capture the zeitgeist. With as well-informed creators as Schrader and Ellis at its helm, it’s easy to assume that The Canyons just might achieve this lofty goal. Until the plot begins to unfold, and these aspirations begin to crumble.
The Canyons opens at an awkward dinner engagement with the two couples at the core of the story. Christian (Deen), a seemingly wealthy and successful producer of schlocky movies and Tara (Lohan), his paramour; sitting across from them are Ryan (Nolan Gerard Funk), the star of Christian’s latest production and Gina (Amanda Brooks), Ryan’s girlfriend and Christian’s assistant. If this convoluted collection of characters is confusing, the film only gets simpler as it drags on. Character details fleshed out in later scenes establish — in retrospect — that the dinner should feel awkward. But, since none of these details are known to the viewer beforehand it just seems like a poorly executed scene. Later, after it’s revealed that Ryan is sleeping with Tara, Christian is sleeping with his yoga instructor, and Tara and Christian are sleeping with random people from an Internet hookup app, this first scene comes to mind as the only understated part of the entire movie.
The rest of the film presents a pretty by-the-numbers love triangle, where suitably attractive people have sex, drink cocktails, text, brood, drive around L.A., have sex, call each other on Bluetooth earpieces, and have sex. Lohan is the stereotypical kept woman and even though she professes her love for Christian and Ryan in equal measure, she never seems convinced that she actually loves anyone. Deen over-acts in a hammy style familiar to anyone who has seen his adults-only exploits (and you know you have), manipulating everyone around him for no apparent reason beyond some briefly alluded to ‘Daddy issues.’ Funk, a relatively decent actor in a film unfamiliar with the concept, manages to lose everything he’s worked for in the most unspectacular way and largely because of his own decisions.
No character is remotely redeemable; all are acting out of self-interest, self-preservation, horniness, and perceived psychological trauma. This could be interesting, but The Canyons never makes me care. The Canyons is trying really, really hard to make a statement, but it’s very difficult to tell just what that statement is.