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Non-Review Review: The Canyons

The Canyons struggles to surmount the weight of productions stories bearing down on it. Paul Schrader’s latest film was famously the subject of a 7,000-word article in the New York Times documenting the trials and tribulations behind the scenes. In a way, these troubles made the film somewhat larger-than-life, turning it into one giant attempt at career resurrection for director Paul Schrader and lead actor Lindsay Lohan.

Given the film’s much publicised sexual content (and the decision to cast pornography actor James Deen in the lead role), there’s a sense that this could be Lohan’s Last Tango in Paris, a bold and blistering performance from a once-respected talent eclipsed by years of behind-the-scenes gossip and idle chatter. Ironically, it’s none of the established talent that impresses with The Canyons. Bret Easton Ellis’ story feels like a shallow pastiche of Ellis-ian touches, while Schrader’s direction is intrusive and overwhelming. Lohan shows flickers of honesty and risk-taking, but is lost in the shuffle and the hum-drum plotting.

In contrast, it’s relative newcomer (as much a man with a filmography containing over 1,000 titles can be a newcomer) James Deen who makes the strongest impression as a surprisingly efficient Ellis-ian protagonist.

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The Canyons tries to be provocative. After all, much has been made of the movie’s group sex scene. Its actors are quick to strip down. Even the casting of Deen seems intended to turn heads. Strangely, the finished product feels very mundane. It’s never overly sordid or excessive melodramatic. This causes obvious problems in the third act, when the film takes a twist towards the grotesque and surreal, but it eats into the film as a whole. There’s a clear sense of “been here and done this” to the whole thing, as if Ellis’ script is merely retreading familiar ground.

“She seems happy, even if she’s totally faking it,” a supporting character offers towards the end of the film, in a line clearly intended as somewhat profound, but feeling strangely stilted. At this point, we’ve had that insight for ninety minutes. It’s clear from the opening scene that this is a movie about desperately insecure and manipulative people pretending to be happy. It’s a world where sometimes that pretence is enough, even if it tends to slip.

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“Is this guy real?” our wannabe actor, Ryan, asks of the sleazy producer, Christian. “Are you for real?” Of course he’s not. Christian is producing a cheap slasher movie, a film that will be lucky to make it direct to video, but he has somehow managed to leverage that into absolute power over others. He exerts the kind of corrupting and seditious influence that we’ve come to expect from characters written by Ellis.

This is Hollywood, so his influence is justified by the vacuous clamouring for fame. Everybody knows everybody, and everybody wants to be a player. We discover that Ryan knows the yoga instructor that Christian is having an affair with. Asked how he’s familiar with her, he explains, “I did an acting class with her a few years ago.” This is a version of Los Angeles populated by those playing the game and losing so badly that they’re scrambling for involvement in a cheap slasher film.

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This is all familiar. Not just from Ellis’ own work, but from a large number of films about the movie industry, dedicated to shattering any romantic delusions about the movies and the people who make them. These sorts of films are always populated with the same shallow and desperate wannabes, but the best films manage to find a hook into these characters. Instead, Ellis’ story remains suitably detached from any of the characters involved in this drama.

This is the movie’s first problem. It’s all too familiar. We know this story, and we know this character. To be fair, casting James Deen seems to have been a coup for Schrader and Ellis. Deen perfectly channels that shallow entitled veneer that Ellis’ protagonists need to project. He’s a spoilt rich kid who gets his kicks watching those strivers dance on his his strings. “How does he have all that money again?” Ryan asks his girlfriend, Christian’s PA. She replies, “Trust fund.”

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Deen’s performance is cold, restrained and withdrawn. It seems he’s never really trying. There’s a deliciously predatory and detached quality to his performance here. Christian isn’t a role that demands too much range, and it’s fairly clear exactly who and what he is from the moment he first appears – boasting about his sexual adventures over drinks with another couple. He’s never fleshed out, but he’s creepier that way, and Deen’s dead performance is the only part of the movie that really works.

Lohan was an impressive young talent once. To be fair, it’s easy to see how The Canyons might have seemed like a smart move for her. It’s a bold and raw indie that offers her her a chance to play a victim caught in the fame game. There are moments when it seems like we might get a glimpse at the potential promised in her early teenage roles, when it seems like Lohan might yet breath life into Tara, the girl caught in an abusive relationship with Christian.

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Unfortunately, we remain too clinically detached from her. We’re never allowed to get close enough to get a sense of the woman beneath the carefully-maintained exterior. There are histrionics and moments of cool detachment, but little in between. Ellis and Schrader never treat Tara as a character, and this limits what Lohan can do with the part. There’s a sense this might have been a viable stab at career resurrection. Instead, it seems like she’s just there.

The whole thing feels markedly two-dimensional, something which isn’t helped by Ellis and Schrader’s attempts at metafiction. When he film seems like it might veer into the sort of gaudy exploitation we’d expect from the film Christian is producing, there’s no sense of fun. There’s a theme running through the film about cinemas and theatres and movies, but Schrader treats it all so dourly serious that weighs the film down.

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We open on a montage of closed down and abandoned movie theatres, shot as if they are the sites of some unspeakable atrocities. Tara asks a friend (as much as anybody has friends in Bret Easton Ellis stories) about the last time she actually went to a movie. “Premieres don’t count,” she qualifies. Given the difficulty funding the film, it’s easy to read this as a bit of bitter meta-text, and it seems more like sour grapes than probing insight.

Equally frustrating is the somewhat laboured metaphor of Christian’s life as a film. He’s clearly more interested in his home movies than he is in the film he has invested in. When he tries to describe how powerless one encounter made him feel, he falls back on the film metaphors. “Usually I’m the one directing the scene.” Trying to illustrate how dirty he felt, he offers, “It made me feel like an actor.” There’s a sense that this should be somewhat cheekier than it come across on film, but it’s played so very straight, no hint of irony.

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There should be something darkly hilarious about a town where everybody so desperately wants to be involved in making movies, but no one actually watches them. It’s hardly a breathtakingly original idea, but it’s a nice insight on celebrity culture. Instead, Schrader treats it as if he’s producing a film about some dirty historical secret.

Watching The Canyons, there’s a sense that Ellis’ screenplay might have been more playful and cheeky than the finished product, but Schrader just drained all that irony from the film, leaving a finished product that feels more like a pale imitation of an Ellis story than anything else.

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2 Responses

  1. That’s too bad. I was hoping this would turn out to be a good movie and Lindsay would be stellar in it. 😦 Maybe it was all the drugs and alcohol that has stifled her once great talent. I am praying it will all be reverted once she completes rehab and settles down and starts living a normal life and sticks with it. I would still like to see this movie though. I have always been a fan of her movies and music but not of her actions. I just wish her the very best and that she can go on to live a normal, productive life. I am not one of those hate mongers who have bashed her all these years. I have always stood up for her. Thanks for the review. 🙂

    • I’ll admit that I always found the media coverage of Lohan slightly predatory and cynical. I can’t imagine what it must be like to deal with that level of scrutiny and observation. I can’t help but feel that the gossiping is part of the vicious cycle – how does one grow up in anything approaching a normal way under that sort of spot light?

      She’s not bad in The Canyons, it’s just that her character is barely there.

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