The Canyons (IFC Films, NR)

thecanyons 75Is it a coincidence that, within the first few minutes of the film, Christian says, “I never even thought this movie would get made”?

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Due presumably to its whats-it factor, Paul Schrader’s new film The Canyons has surely gotten the most prerelease ink of any low-budget (in this case, a reported $250,000), non-festival hit in recent memory. The deal is that it pairs director Schrader (who’s best known as a writer, of no less than Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, but who has also directed successful films such as American Gigolo, Affliction, and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters) with screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis (the exceptionally dislikeable fucktard who’s best known as a novelist of books like American Psycho and The Rules of Attraction; about the nicest thing I can say is that good movies seem to be made from his source material, so long as he stays the fuck away from the production) on a film that stars Lindsay Lohan and porn star James Deen, here cracking into the straight indie scene as Sasha Grey did with The Girlfriend Experience in 2009. That’s such a strange combination of people that, even if the movie is a huge failure, it’s still bound to at the very least be an interesting failure.

And let’s not forget that at least Schrader and Lohan are talented. Yes, Lindsay is talented, and we’d be wise not to forget that. Schrader has said in interviews in The New York Times as well as Film Comment re: this film that, while Lohan was a pain in the ass to work with, she has a certain charisma that you don’t often see—and he’s right. What’s more, I’ll take it one step further and say that Lohan is a lot smarter than people give her credit. Before all the tabloid meltdowns and notoriety, when she was still just a talented, fresh-faced child star, she came off as being remarkably poised for someone her age. I specifically recall a Mean Girls-era interview in which she said she wanted to emulate Jodie Foster’s ability to transition from a successful child actress to a successful adult actress (and not for nothing that a big break for Foster on this front came in the form of her role in Taxi Driver, which is maybe why Lohan trusted Schrader enough to work with him here).

As for The Canyons itself without all the behind-the-scenes context, it’s a functional film, though maybe not a great one. Ellis’s story is pretty generic, and a lot of the dialogue is glaring in its expository nature, but on the whole it works better than one might expect. It concerns young Hollywood couple Christian (Deen) and Tara (Lohan), who are engaged in an unhealthy relationship, to say the least: Both are cheating on the other, and that is rendered moot in each person’s eyes, given that Christian recreationally finds people online (both male and female) to have sex with Tara while he films it. As the movie begins, Christian and Tara are having dinner with another young Hollywood couple, Ryan (Nolan Funk) and Gina (Amanda Brooks), and we soon learn that Gina is Christian’s personal assistant and Ryan is the person with whom Tara is having an affair. Christian has his suspicions about Tara, and so he starts playing mind games on everyone involved to try to get someone to prove the things he suspects. This all escalates, in part because Tara is at least as clever (though maybe not as outright hostile) as Christian.

A fair number of the lines or themes in the script apply pretty directly to this film itself. Is it a coincidence that, within the first few minutes of the film, Christian says, “I never even thought this movie would get made”? Sure, he’s talking about the film he’s about to go into production on in the context of the script, but the moment feels Brecht-ian in the way it echoes what people in the industry were saying about this movie while it was in pre-production. Also, Tara, despite having had some success in the film world, seems to be losing interest in the whole scene, and is looking for something else to do with her life. That doesn’t sound too far off from what Lohan’s been up to, though who knows her reasons for this.

As it turns out, one of the most memorable aspects of the finished version of this film is Deen, who proves to be pretty strong. Casting a porn star as Christian was a wise choice, as Deen, while handsome (he looks more like James Franco than he does his more obvious namesake), projects a nice balance between sexual menace and vapidity—think Schrader’s Hardcore (a mostly overlooked gem in his back catalogue) crossed with Ellis’s Less Than Zero.

It’s also a little artier than certain members of its audience will likely be expecting. The aforementioned opening scene at dinner features a whole lot of actors looking and talking directly into the camera, and then much of the rest of the film finds people framed in unusual and interesting ways. You also see a couple of penises in the film (gasp!), and once they make an appearance, their owners don’t tend to be afraid to do things with them (oh my!).

The question, then, is this: If The Canyons existed in exactly the same quality but without the memorable combination of people in front of and behind the camera, would anyone care? To be honest, I doubt it, myself included. But that doesn’t mean that if you watch this movie you’ll be sorry that you did—it’s at least of interest, and if nothing else proves that all of the people who worked on it don’t always blow every chance given to them. | Pete Timmermann

The Canyons opens theatrically in New York City on August 2, and hits iTunes and various other on-demand platforms that same date. A St. Louis theatrical run may also be forthcoming; look for future announcements.

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