Canyons, The (United States, 2013)

August 03, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Canyons, The Poster

The Canyons opens with still photographs of crumbling, disused movie theaters - multiplexes that, as recently as a decade ago, might have been bustling sites of human congress on weekends and holidays. These images have little to do with the story told by director Paul Schrader and screenwriter Brett Easton Ellis (unless one wants to stretch a metaphor past its breaking point) but they illustrate the philosophy underlying Schrader's participation in this movie. He believes the time of the theater is at an end. The future isn't people congregating in an auditorium watching images projected on a screen; it's home viewing. We have entered the Video on Demand era and that's the market targeted by Schrader with The Canyons. Made on a "microbudget" of about $250,000, it should have no trouble breaking even.

The film's advance buzz, helped immeasurably by Stephen Rodrick's January 2013 fascinating tell-all published in the New York Times, has placed The Canyons on the radar of some who might otherwise not be interested. Sadly, this is a case when the behind-the-scenes story is more intriguing than the one told in the film. And, while the movie features a topless Lindsay Lohan, her breasts are no longer the drawing point they might once have been. The same can be said about her performance. There are flashes of it but they're the exception rather than the rule. To quote a well-known screen character: "It's not the years, it's the mileage."

Purportedly, George C. Scott once said to Schrader: "You’re a great screenwriter but the world’s worst goddamned director." That may be an exaggeration, but it's hard to reconcile The Canyons as coming from the man who wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, two of the 20th century's great motion pictures. Of course, those were only written by Schrader and their success certainly had something to do with the involvement of Martin Scorsese. Schrader's reputation behind-the-camera is checkered, featuring titles like American Gigolo and Auto Focus. His work here is somewhere between adequate and questionable, but some of that may have had to do with budgetary limitations. It's tough to do reshoots and get all the necessary coverage when the money is thin.

Schrader makes moody movies about isolated, depressed people. Brett Easton Ellis writes stories about soulless individuals playing in a conscience-free upper class society. The Canyons features both elements and the result is an emotionally vacant motion picture that gives us characters so repugnant that it's tough to spend a few minutes in their company let alone more than an hour and a half. The inherent problem isn't that they're vile and self-absorbed but that they're uninteresting. They're defined exclusively by their vices. They spit out dialogue that varies from banal to pithy but none of what they say leaves an impression. Their sex scenes are mechanical and not remotely erotic. The Canyons is no fun but it also lacks the power one associates with a grim cinematic experience.

Watching The Canyons, I felt like I was observing a diluted imitation of Ellis' American Psycho. This film's lead character, Christian (James Deen), is a close cousin to American Psycho's Patrick Bateman who, as played by Christian Bale, has become an iconic cult figure. The difference is easy to spot: Bale is a much better actor. He brings a force and screen presence to the role that eludes Deen. Comparing The Canyons to American Psycho is a useful exercise only because it illustrates the numerous shortcomings in the former.

The Canyons operates in soap opera territory. At its center is a love triangle between trust fund millionaire Christian, his financially dependent girlfriend, Tara (Lohan), and a vacuous pretty-boy actor, Ryan (Nolan Funk). Tara loves Ryan and Ryan loves Tara, but she can't be with him because he lives paycheck-to-paycheck and she loathes that lifestyle. So she stays with the mercurial Christian, who's a typically emotionally bankrupt Brett Easton Ellis creation. There's no evidence of affection or chemistry between Tara and Christian, whose interaction consists of trite conversations, head games, and sex with multiple partners. The relationship between Tara and Ryan is even less interesting - true love (not that we ever sense it) that has morphed into seedy, clandestine encounters.

The Canyons' pacing is turgid. The film's opening scene, which features a dinner conversation between two couples - Christian and Tara and Ryan and his girlfriend, Gina (Amanda Brooks) - seems to last forever. None of the characters connect and Lohan has a tendency to mumble her lines. It requires an effort to focus on what these people are saying and what Schrader is trying to convey. Following that sequence, we're subjected to an hour of tedium that Lohan nudity and kinky sex can't alleviate. The movie picks up momentum as it approaches its conclusion but the potential for something memorable to develop from a violent act fizzles.

It's hard to get past the shortcomings of the leads. Deen, far better known for his day job (having appeared in more than 4000 adult videos), is more capable than what might expect from a porn actor. However, his low-key charisma can't hide his limitations; he can't reach the complexity needed to make Christian compelling, although perhaps Schrader is as much at fault as Deen. Lohan, meanwhile, is dogged by her off-screen reputation. Her performance isn't rich or transformative enough to allow us to forget it. Nolan Funk is simply awful - physically attractive but unable to deliver a line convincingly. The only one in the cast who seems like a professional actor is Amanda Brooks, whose Gina is relegated to the side.

The Canyons is interesting when viewed in the context of Rodrick's piece and as a case study of how things get done in Hollywood. As a film, however, it's forgettable. Despite a generous helping of sex and other depravity, Schrader proves unable to hold our attention. The culprits are numerous but dissecting the problem doesn't change the result. The Canyons is a sleazy soap opera that fails primarily because it gives us no one to care about and no reason why we should be interested that we don't care.

Canyons, The (United States, 2013)

Director: Paul Schrader
Cast: Lindsay Lohan, James Deen, Nolan Funk, Amanda Brooks, Tenille Houston
Screenplay: Brett Easton Ellis
Cinematography: John DeFazio
Music: Brendan Canning
U.S. Distributor: IFC Films
Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 2013-08-02
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Sexual Content, Nudity, Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1