VOD film review: The Canyons
Simon Kinnear | On 11, May 2014
Director: Paul Schrader
Cast: Lindsay Lohan, James Deen
Watch The Canyons online in the UK: Amazon Prime / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Google Play
If you’re reading this, the chances are you are intending to watch The Canyons on video on-demand. Yet you will instantly feel guilty for doing so, because Paul Schrader’s film is bookended by montages of sad, forlorn, abandoned cinemas – the dream palaces that you have abandoned for the comfort of your own home.
“This is the future,” the film seems to say. “Here, you’re welcome to it.”
In between lies a fascinating, flawed movie, one that is seldom enjoyable to watch but intensely interesting to talk about simply because of the circumstances surrounding its existence. Indeed, the backstory behind The Canyons would probably make a better film than the film itself, judging from the jaw-dropping expose of the film’s production that appeared in the New York Times last year.
In summary: This is the story of how a fallen god of 1970s cinema (Schrader) joined forces with an equally fallen icon of Noughties celebrity (Lindsay Lohan), in the company of a best-selling author (Brett Easton Ellis) and a porn star (James Deen). This improbable foursome elected to make a film in as modern a way as possible: using Kickstarter for funding, and casting mostly using online video.
Given the volatile ingredients, the ruptures in the film are obvious and immediate. Brett Easton Ellis is a dead-eyed prophet of amorality, a satirist of superficiality… while Schrader is a deep thinker who believes in transcendent cinema. Or, to put it another way, one thinks he’s making a black comedy, while the other is aiming for tragic drama. If Schrader ultimately wins, it’s because the film itself becomes the tragedy.
The story, such as it is, focuses on the wearily kinky relationship between Lohan’s Tara and Deen’s rich kid/film producer Christian. The latter likes to invite third parties to share their sex life, provided emotion is kept out of it. However, the duo’s complex relationship with Christian’s assistant, Gina (Amanda Brooks), and her lover, Ryan (Nolan Gerard Funk), a wannabe actor whom Tara has persuaded Christian to cast, means that things are about to get messy.
Difficult though it is to comprehend, this could have worked. Desire has been at the heart of Schrader’s work ever since he created Travis Bickle, the eponymous Taxi Driver, and sex dominated his early films, such as Hardcore, Cat People and – especially – American Gigolo. At its best, The Canyons feels like a worthy 21st century update of the latter film’s study of performance as a way of life, swapping Richard Gere’s Armani suits for the equally clean lines of an iPhone. Schrader makes the connection through his camerawork and production design; the film is gorgeous, propelled by stylish, insidious tracking shots and sleek locations that belie the movie’s low budget and remind us that a film is only as expensive as the eye behind the camera.
Yet Ellis’ dialogue is brittle and bitter, a deliberately blank verse of Californian soap opera. One person wants us to care; the other doesn’t give a shit.
Inevitably, the performances are marooned in the middle. Deen comes off best because… hey, he’s used to banal dialogue, right? His stilted, affectless acting actually makes his character crueller and creepier than the sub-Patrick Bateman villain Ellis has written because there’s nothing to empathise with.
As for Lohan, it’s the kind of role that attracts adjectives such as “brave”, when people really mean she gets naked. There’s nothing here that any young starlet couldn’t do equally well; all that Lohan brings is the meta-spectacle of her real-life crises, which creates the fog of tragedy that the film cannot otherwise provide. 10 years on from the highs of Freaky Friday and Mean Girls, Lohan looks wrecked, and much, much older than her 27 years.
It would be an exploitative piece of stunt casting were it not for the fact that this is a story about exploitation, a study of the modern world’s blurred lines between our public and private spheres, which makes Lohan’s involvement look like a stroke of genius. It is also a story about old-school monogamy and contemporary promiscuity (social as well as sexual), which makes Schrader a fascinating choice of director.
If anything, though, it’s he who is being exploited – and he’s doing it to himself. The Canyons simply wasn’t worth getting into bed with Ellis for, since the story is tawdry and tired; the author on a bad day with its self-parodic study of sexual power-play. Schrader’s sincerity means that he lacks Ellis’ snide vision. Sex scenes that needed to be disturbing look like bad erotica. (Given the rich villain is named Christian, this doesn’t exactly augur well for 50 Shades Of Grey. If not even Schrader can make this material work, what the hell is that film going to be like?)
Which brings us back to cinema. At one point, he films a sexual encounter on his phone and any cinephile will be outraged by the fact that he’s filming it in portrait. By contrast, The Canyons (destined mainly to be viewed at home) is defiantly landscape in its Widescreen visuals. This is a bisection of old and new, but for Schrader the crossroads is something to lament. Hence all of those shots of sad, forlorn, abandoned cinema.
The irony is that, in patches, The Canyons offers proof that a low-budget, crowd-sourced, Internet-cast movie can look amazing, attract big name talent and get people talking. All it needed was a decent story to go with it.
The Canyons is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.