Discussing The Canyons and ignoring the cause celebre which has hung over the production since its inception is a difficult task indeed. Sight unseen The Canyons appeared to be a film that was doomed to fail. The New York Times article about the film detailed several production mishaps from difficult relationships between the actors on set to disagreements between the director, the writer and the producer over the final cut and the tone of the movie. All the stories, despite later denials from some quarters, seemed to have the ring of truth about it considering the backgrounds of its major players and creatives.
Trying to put all that to the back of your mind while watching the film and not let it infiltrate your perception of the finished project is near impossible. But after finishing The Canyons all that brouhaha which has surrounded it informs all the issues that the finished project has.
Set in contemporary Hollywood, The Canyons follows the lives of young talent trying to get ahead in Los Angeles. Christian (James Deen) is a young, good looking producer who lives with his actress girlfriend Tara (Lindsay Lohan) in the hills of LA. Ryan (Nolan Funk) is a young actor who has been cast in a low budget horror movie that Christian is producing. Tara and Ryan are involved in a love affair which Christian is aware of and he uses that knowledge to begin to manipulate his girlfriend and the new star of his movie.
The Canyons from the outset seems like a satire. After all this is written by Bret Easton Ellis and directed by Paul Schrader, both have made careers out of satire and examining the dark side of human nature to quite profound effect and with bite. The most surprising and the most disappointing aspect of The Canyons is how stunningly toothless it is. This is a film that believes itself to be a snarky yet informed view of the Hollywood system and yet it never really seems to be aware of what it is trying to say and when it does seem to be approaching a point it comes across as a tad limp and unadventurous.
Those are words which one would never expect to say about a film that is a collaboration between Schrader and Ellis. These are men who each have had a massive influence on popular culture over the past 30 years and are renowned for pushing the boundaries. Schrader wrote Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ to name but a few. As a director (a very underrated director), he’s given us American Gigolo and Affliction (perhaps his finest film), all works which felt like they had something to say while pushing boundaries but also coming from a very personal place. Ellis, of course, gave us American Psycho, but more importantly brought us Less Than Zero, Imperial Bedrooms and Glamorama, all satires which deal with fame, celebrity and Hollywood. More importantly, they all had something to say and they all had an edge.
When you approached a product with either Schrader or Ellis’ name on, you felt you were going to get something which was daring, controversial but nonetheless exciting and brilliant, and together the prospect of them working together is a partnership that seems like a match made in heaven. Unfortunately, with this film at least, it’s not. With The Canyons it seems as if the individual talents have cancelled each other out and you realise that their approach towards this material is utterly different. Ellis had said: “The film is so languorous. It’s an hour 30, and it seems like it’s three hours long. I saw this as a pranky noirish thriller, but Schrader turned it into, well, a Schrader film.”
The problem is that the thriller aspect isn’t particularly thrilling and the pranky aspect seems almost devoid. The snarky, pranky aspect we expect from Ellis’ work seems to have dulled with age and none of that playfulness is present here, it’s all very heavy handed. However, we don’t get a full blown Schrader film either. As both a writer and director, Schrader has been obsessed with God’s Lonely Man, the idea of one man’s loneliness, the effect that has on people around him and the psychosis involved in that character. There’s none of that depth here, he tries his hardest to bring something into a script which is frankly lifeless and empty, ultimately he doesn’t find a way to fit himself or his world view into the shallow vision of Bret Easton Ellis.
But the problems go beyond The Canyons just being a toothless satire, it doesn’t work as a thriller either and this is where Ellis has a point. It is languorous. At 90 minutes it should rocket along and the film’s gradual descent into murky territory should work, however, the thriller doesn’t really kick into gear until the last 15 minutes and the tonal shift is a rather noticeable one. Before that it is rather boring, characters sit in restaurants talking (not very good talk), occasionally spiced up with raunchy sex, which seemingly serves no purpose. It is perhaps best described as Roger Corman-style B movie but then again, it’s a film which Corman would ultimately find self important, baggy and dull.
The problems don’t stop there though. Lindsay Lohan is in essence a bit of stunt casting, a personality that attracts controversy which can match that of her director and writer, a personality through which they can market the film. This did in one sense backfire. Schrader has said himself that she was a nightmare to direct, wilfully ignoring direction, persistent in her demands and occasionally not showing up to work. That said, the character of Tara; an out of work, fragile actor that has been undone by the system is actually a good fit for Lohan. She has experienced her fair share of bad press and has been booted out of the Hollywood in crowd. By no means is this a great performance but it is a good performance, mainly because she doesn’t have to do that much acting. It would be churlish to deny her the fact that she is the best thing in the movie. Sadly the same can’t be said for the rest of the cast.
James Deen, the porn actor who caught the eye of Bret Easton Ellis (and is probably responsible for Deen’s presence in the movie), is woeful, there’s no dimensionality to his character but there’s no dimensionality in his acting either. He plays everything at one level, never fully embracing the stupidity of the movie he’s a part of and playing everything highly serious. Apparently on the set he felt like he wasn’t properly respected. I can kind of understand why and it speaks volumes for his acting talent that he is out-acted in a scene by Gus Van Sant. Elsewhere, Nolan Funk fails to justify why he’s there other than just being a pretty face and the smaller roles are equally populated by actors who are way out of their depth.
The Canyons is striking for just how utterly unremarkable and flat it is. This is a film that comes from two very powerful voices and feels nothing but limp and boring. This will only be remembered as one of the first film projects from named people to be a Kickstarter success, other than that this is an effort that just isn’t worth anyone’s time. Reportedly during post production, Steven Soderbergh offered to re-edit the entire film. One wishes they took him up on that offer, then at least it would have been of marginal interest.