Directed by: Paul Schrader
Written by: Bret Easton Ellis (screenplay)
Starring: Lindsay Lohan, James Deen, Nolan Gerard Funk and Amanda Brooks
“When’s the last time you saw a movie in a theater?” Lindsay Lohan’s character Tara asks her friend while at lunch. “When’s the last time you saw a movie you really thought meant something to you?”
Those lines are the best way to start sorting through The Canyons, a lurid, somewhat successful collaboration between director Paul Schrader, writer Bret Easton Ellis and Lohan that would be somewhat meaningful in a theater but is also available On Demand. Even when it veers into groan-inducing territory on the screenplay front, the seductively dark rhythm of Schrader’s Hollywood sustains it.
So too does Lohan’s performance, an irresistible blend of wheezy, drug-addled femme fatale and the more realistic effects of narcotic use (a la her insanely publicized personal life). It’s impossible to separate life from her acting career, which is why it’s so easy to see why she would be so drawn to a movie like this, where smartphones are weaponized and someone is always watching.
It’s clear from the beginning Tara is in the midst of a very unhealthy relationship with Christian (porn star James Deen) and his phone, which he uses to acquire a third and sometimes fourth person for their sexual escapades. Christian is Patrick Batemen with a touch more douche bag than psycho. His character is almost relentlessly one-dimensional, and Deen’s performance follows suit. He is a vindictive, controlling trust-fund baby who dabbles in low-budget slasher film production.
As a favor to Tara and his assistant Gina, he gives a big role in his latest film to Ryan (Nolan Gerard Funk). Ryan and Tara are in love, which combined with Christian’s crazy gives The Canyons half-hearted dramatic purpose. All of the characters are toxic, though, and it’s impossible and often frustrating to be on anyone’s side. They are so toxic, in fact, that this Hollywood comes with a radioactive glow. Even the trees and bushes glow in broad daylight, and almost every transition from outside to inside seems like a descent into a neon underworld.
It’s unclear whether the world mirrors their poisonous personalities, or if they are a by-product of it. Each sex scene feels unclean, and when Christian finally descends into violence, he ultimately becomes, intentionally, the cheap schlock that he produces. Deen fills him with the same unsympathetic arrogance that Christian Bale did for Batemen in the film version of American Psycho, though without the gleeful, uninhibited insanity.
Ellis’ screenplay often makes a mockery out of conversation and etiquette. The story is book-ended by two very awkward double dates, which are the weakest in the movie by far because Schrader doesn’t seem to know exactly what to do with the dialogue. In the first he cuts between all four of the principle characters, but the pacing and the timing of the looks is sloppy even if the conversation is somewhat intense. The second, though, is just sloppily-written exposition that tidies up the movie way too quickly.
It’s that kind of hit-and-miss that makes this such an interesting collaboration, though. Some of the best scenes show Ellis’ characters deliberately confronting the accusations of sexism that his previous work, notably American Psycho, has garnered. One of these is the movie’s climax, a techno-colored foursome where Tara turns Christian’s misogynistic voyeurism against him.
This scene somewhat dismantles a few others that would have made The Canyons fairly homophobic. Christian, for all his macho ridicule against Ryan “going gay” to get ahead or to keep a job, is all too eager to go down on another guy in the heat of the moment.
This is what cinema has become, Schrader seems to be saying with these deranged, narcissistic fools and their phones. Shots of abandoned multiplexes begin and end the movie and also serve as backdrops for the beginning of each day in the story. That makes The Canyons by far the most ironic movie to utilize the “Watch It While It’s In Theaters” online rental trend. Everything about it oozes with a pessimism for mainstream movie making; even the title suggests that calling it the Hollywood Hills is unearned optimism.