I Watched ‘The Canyons’ So You Don’t Have To


“The Canyons” is one of those mythical projects you hear echoes about in film circles but never actually expect to see in real life. A film from Paul Schrader, director of “American Gigolo,” written by unabashed curmudgeon Brett Easton Ellis? Starring Lindsay Lohan and sperm magnate James Deen?

Surely that doesn’t exist. Surely that would never be a thing. But it does, and it is.

The film opens with a series of stills of abandoned and closed cinemas of greater Los Angeles — long forgotten evidence of Hollywood’s heyday. They represent a time when going to the movies was an event and not just something you pulled up on your phone while on a long subway ride. If you love film as I do, this thing’s already depressing.

We then go to a restaurant where Lohan’s Tara and Deen’s Christian are on a dinner date with Cristian’s assistant Gina (Amanda Brooks) and her boyfriend Ryan (Nolan Funk). They’re prattling on about the hotel Christian and Tara just got back from in Vegas (“A private thing,” he says) while Christian uses a dating app to pull up profiles of men he wants to invite back to his house for a three-way with himself and Tara.

Lindsay has some Cleopatra eyeliner on and her eyelids have a soft lilt to them reminiscent of Karloff’s “Frankenstein” makeup. Thankfully, she doesn’t wear it for the rest of the film. Deen, meanwhile, is either giving a self conscious smirk or returning his face to its default position: a Zoolander-esque “Blue Steel” type look. This does continue throughout the film.

It's alive!
It’s alive!

Christian is a trust fund baby who produces exploitation horror films on the side. He, after some pushing from Tara, landed Ryan a role in his new film. But Christian doesn’t care. The only movies he cares about are the ones he films inside the bedroom on his Windows Phone, which is obnoxiously featured throughout the film. He routinely invites men and women back to his meticulous, sparse mansion for sex romps in which Tara joins in.

But it turns out that Tara knows Ryan. The two had a fling a year prior, and have now reignited it. Christian, who is routinely tossing the salad of his yoga instructor, Cynthia (Tenille Houston), is now worried that Tara may be cheating on him. (He actually expresses this worry while in bed with Cynthia.) So he goes about rooting into the situation through a series of manipulations and the recruitment of a private eye who looks like the poor man’s Jesse Pinkman.

What follows is a series of vignettes with people discussing who’s meeting with who, who they’re pretending to meet with, telling people to meet with other people and dig for information, talk about who slept with who and idle chatter about which gyms certain characters went to over other ones. Everyone knows everyone else somehow, forming a banal web of deceit until things culminate in a bizarre and lackluster conclusion.

It’s a film full of stilted acting to match stilted shots, most of which (perhaps symbolically) contain a great amount of empty space. But Lindsay, the centerpiece of the circus here, is actually not bad. She particularly shines in a few too-close-to-home monologues where she talks about days when her character was not able to afford rent. She is most believable and sympathetic when she’s breaking down – an irony that Schrader surely picked up on.

And then there’s the much talked about orgy sequence, in which Tara and Christian get down with another couple below a bedroom lit by rave lasers and a shower of pale blue light. This was disappointing mostly because Deen does most of the down-and-dirty stuff, and you can see footage of him doing that all over the internet. Lindsay was allegedly apprehensive about shooting this and, according to some reports, put up a divalicious front. But there’s no reason, because she’s not the focus of the scene.

There are lots of great films about filmmaking, like Chris Smith’s “American Movie” or Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood.” They usually focus on underdogs outside the industry with a passion for making movies. Then comes “Canyons” — bemoaning the foregoing of cinema for cell phones — about people already in the industry but completely apathetic about it. It’s a strange dichotomy, and it makes one wonder about the motives of everyone involved.

James Deen isn't fucking around.
James Deen isn’t fucking around.

But Schrader insists his film is actually about “hook up culture” and the distrust running rampant in today’s post-modern relationships. Ellis seems preoccupied with sex as a tool. Gay sex is held above actors’ heads to make them advance or not advance careers. Straight sex is used to appease desires for power over others. There’s nothing groundbreaking here.

This is a subject matter Schrader’s built his career on. He’s been exploring the seedy underbelly beneath the glamor in films like “Hardcore” and “Auto Focus.” But by now it seems there isn’t much else to say, and everyone involved seems content to just icily watch horrible, uninteresting people do horrible and uninteresting things.

It seems everyone has hammered the film for portraying vapid characters in a vapid world. But it’s apparent the joke is on the critic, because at a screening Schrader said he set out to make a film that was “dead at its center.” And it is. But when you set out to make a film with a heartless core and accomplish it … who wins? Not the viewer. And not its starlet, who was banking on a comeback.

I’m not regretful I spent an hour and a half watching this. It’s like going on a date with someone so droll that you can’t pull away. And, if nothing else, it’s something to talk about at ritzy cocktail parties.

(Please, someone, invite me to a ritzy cocktail party.)