James Deen! Lindsay Lohan! Bret Easton Ellis! Paul Schrader! Yes, it’s The Canyons. What, wonders Niall Anderson, could possibly go wrong?
The Canyons begins with scenes of boarded-up cinemas in Hollywood. The historic home of movies is now inhospitable to them. A little later, a friend asks Lindsay Lohan’s Tara why she’s cooled off on a particular film project. ‘When was the last time you saw a movie that really meant something to you?’ she replies. The answer is a dodge for all sorts of reasons particular to Tara, but it nicely incarnates both the epic self-indulgence of The Canyons and its ambivalent sadness about the end of Hollywood as dream factory.
Most of the pre-release notices of The Canyons have focussed on its sensational behind-the-scenes aspects: the stunt casting (porn star James Deen; teen-starlet-turned-trainwreck Lindsay Lohan), the Kickstarter campaign to fund it (which didn’t actually kickstart anything), and the unholy alliance between nihilist author Bret Easton Ellis and moralist director Paul Schrader. The most sensational thing about the film turns out to be how exactly it maps to your expectations: The Canyons is, in several respects, a film you don’t need to see.
Bored movie producer Christian (Deen) lives with bored model-turned-actress Tara (Lohan). They have an open relationship, which means that Christian fucks whoever he likes (‘Why so many guys lately?’) and occasionally invites people back to fuck Tara. As is the way with a lot of Ellis stories, what looks like libertinism feels like claustrophobia.
Christian is casting a horror film. His leading man is Ryan (the improbably named Nolan Funk), who just happens to have history with Tara. When Christian finds out, he proceeds on a mission of spying, bullying, sexual sadism and general head-games. Tara does a lot of big actressy sobbing. The dramatic interest of the scenario lies entirely in the question of how sincere Christian and Tara are in their misery. Might they in fact be getting off on it?
This idea isn’t particularly original or dramatically robust: you need a canny script and a canny director to pull it off. Canniness is not, however, something one typically associates with either Ellis or Schrader. Starting from a position of blank-eyed provocation, as they do here, there isn’t really anywhere much they can go. In which case, craft is going to have to save the day.
But The Canyons has a peculiar relationship to craft. It’s full of randomly woo-woo tracking shots and perversely wide-angled takes of cramped interiors. The setpieces (by which I mean, almost exclusively, the sex scenes) have a fluidity and intentness that is evidently the result of much careful planning and camera know-how. But these little flourishes of craft are precisely that: flourishes. Elsewhere, and particularly in its approach to dialogue, The Canyons is an exercise in Eh, That’ll Do.
Some of this has to do with Ellis’s attachment to the empty non sequitur (‘I’m really sorry I didn’t congratulate you on starting your own PR company’), but most of it seems to be the product of under-rehearsal and a tight shooting schedule. No line of dialogue is flubbed, exactly, but many are swallowed or barely audible. Scenes end with a split second of silence – the fatal moment before the director yells ‘Cut!’ Naturalness and immediacy of performance are privileged above storytelling, which has the effect at length of making everything look and sound unnatural.
The nicest thing you can say about the acting is that everyone seems to be doing their best. Nolan Funk as Ryan takes his void of a character and fills it with all the voidishness at his disposal. Lohan seems alternately massively engaged and completely out of it, which fits the scenario, if nothing else. Deen has an attractive penis and a wheedling delivery that suggests a depth of pain the script doesn’t quite do enough to support. A bit like Justin Timberlake in The Social Network, Deen’s charisma scrambles one’s sense of whether he can actually act. We’ll be seeing more of him, and his penis, soon.
As The Canyons winds its way to its dishonourable ending, you find yourself wishing it a bit more dishonourable. For obvious reasons, most reviews have lined it up with Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers or Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring (tales of youth gone wild), but it’s closer kin to something like William Friedkin’s Killer Joe – a piece of literary formalism by an old hand, intended at least partly to remind you of the sort of films Hollywood would once have taken a chance on. But where the subtext of Killer Joe is ‘Fuck you’, the subtext here is a flat ‘Fuck this’.