Film Review: ‘The Canyons’
The signature psychosexual perversity of director Paul Schrader finds its nearly perfect match in novelist Bret Easton Ellis, whose screenplay for Schrader’s “The Canyons” might just as soon have been called “Psycho American Gigolo” or “The Hardcore Rules of Attraction.” The first in the new wave of Kickstarter-funded features instigated by established old-media types, Schrader’s ultra-low-budget (reportedly $250,000) but handsomely made study of low-level Hollywood hangers-on has earned much prerelease attention for the casting of real-life porn star James Deen and the troubled Lindsay Lohan (also one of the pic’s co-producers). But the end result is hardly a joke, not least for Lohan’s fascinating presence, far closer to self-revelation than self-parody. Between VOD curiosity seekers and adventurous arthouse-goers, “The Canyons” is sure to see solid returns on its modest investment, while pushing Schrader back into the zeitgeist after a long fallow period.
The latest but surely not the last 2013 release devoted to the amoral (s)exploits of hungry young things clawing at the good life (e.g. “The Bling Ring,” “Pain & Gain,” “Spring Breakers”), “The Canyons” is also the most overt in its evocation of such caustic industry cautionary tales as “The Day of the Locust” and “The Bad and the Beautiful.” To wit, Schrader makes a recurring motif out of boarded-up old movie theaters (seen as a montage under the opening credits and as chapter headings throughout), suggesting that Tinseltown ain’t what it used to be and, yes, the pictures — like “The Canyons” itself — really have gotten smaller. There is something of David Lynch’s “Mulholland Dr.” and “Inland Empire,” too, in the pic’s sense of a place where everyone is always playing some alternate version of him- or herself, whether onscreen or off.
Like the director’s 1990 “The Comfort of Strangers,” “The Canyons” charts the increasingly treacherous aftershocks that stem from the initial encounter of two couples: smug rich kid Christian (Deen), who’s invested in a low-budget slasher movie about to shoot in New Mexico; his girlfriend, Tara (Lohan); his assistant, Gina (Amanda Brooks); and her boyfriend, Ryan (Nolan Funk), an aspiring actor who’s landed the lead in Christian’s movie. They meet over dinner and drinks, during which Christian stuns the fresh-faced, Joe Buck-ish Ryan with tales of his and Tara’s open relationship, including frequent additional partners of both sexes. (He is, when the movie begins, going though “a dude phase.”)
We soon learn that, three years earlier, when they were both nobodies, Ryan and Tara were themselves an item. Now, ever since reconnecting at Ryan’s audition, they’ve been meeting for illicit afternoon hookups, but while Ryan is still smitten, Tara is more pragmatic. She’s not interested in going back to their old, hardscrabble life together, she tells him in an early scene set at the Century City shopping mall — a scene Lohan plays with such raw conviction that you can’t be sure who’s more afraid of slipping back into working-stiff anonymity, her or her character.
It doesn’t take long for the jealous Christian to figure out what’s going on under his blow-dusted nose, and to plot his revenge. It’s the least interesting aspect of the movie, though Deen is a minor revelation in the role. Having garnered a lot of ink in recent years as the nice-Jewish-boy porn star with the high IQ and rocket-scientist parents, the actor is used here for maximum smiling-psycho value — another in Ellis’ expansive gallery of spoiled brats who’ve never stopped wanting to get their way, even if they have to kill for it. And Deen is more than up for the challenge; he holds the camera captive with his chilly, privately amused stare.