The Canyons opens on a chic double date that’s intended to prime the audience for a cinematic evening of delectable sin and avarice. Christian (James Deen) and Tara (Lindsay Lohan) are the naughty couple in the know of how The World Actually Works, while Ryan (Nolan Gerard Funk) and Gina (Amanda Brooks) assume the traditional audience-surrogate role of the wide-eyed couple hoping to get somewhere in the entertainment industry. This scene establishes the contrasts bluntly: Christian and Tara are moneyed and given to unconventional sexual indulgences, while Ryan and Gina are dupes who stand to be corrupted by their cynical friends.
Ninety-five minutes later, that’s still, with the exception of a few tidbits gleaned from meaningless twists, all you know about these people. Director Paul Schrader and screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis’s intentions are easy enough to decipher, as the characters are always fondling their cellphones while uttering trashy bon mots that are meant to shock us with their razor-sharp indictment of the deep truth that lies below the platitudes we sell ourselves about our relationships with our significant others. The Canyons is intended as a hip noir that factors the rapidly evolving textures of Facebook, iPhone, and so forth into the primal, ageless war of the sexes.
But Schrader and Ellis don’t have the sense of play this kind of narrative of one-upmanship requires, as we’re never allowed to enjoy the characters’ misdeeds. The ultimate problem is that Schrader and Ellis’s sensibilities merge seamlessly. The filmmaker and the author are both talented (particularly Schrader, a great film critic who’s also written two or three of the greatest American screenplays), but they have similarly conflicting urges to get off on privileged moral decay while simultaneously scolding the audience for similarly getting off. Their films and novels, respectively, are often over-intellectualized and phony, and neither has the instinct for allure and sensuality necessary to imbue their violent erotica with heat and nuance, much less ambiguity.
Schrader and Ellis never deign to invite your complicity with their antiheroes. Sex is always evil in the filmmaker and author’s worlds, and a few group sessions between Christian, Tara, and the random people they meet online are dramatized with Schrader’s usual prissy, judgmental disdain. He displays an exploitation filmmaker’s calculation by casting a porn star and a tabloid casualty as tarnished angels, but he can’t bring himself to court our voyeuristic curiosity. The film is playing a game that’s rigged, as we know almost immediately that we’re going to be subjected to another of Schrader’s dull, latently homophobic essays on objectification and alienation (as usual with both artists, gay sex is portrayed as the ultimate signifier of a character’s debauchery and moral disconnect). The only entertainment value The Canyons promises is the inevitable publication of the review that positions the film as a subversive, Brechtian treatise on sex in pop culture.
Like a number of movies that have ridden a wave of profoundly negative buzz leading to their release, The Canyons is revealed to be a perverse non-event. Problematic though they may often be, Schrader’s films usually hold together aesthetically, and the performances adhere to his often narrow concepts of human fallibility (Affliction is the stunning, glorious exception to most of Schrader’s rules). But The Canyons is poorly made and distractingly so. The sets appear to have been arbitrarily selected for their convenience, as they bear no convincing relationship to the characters’ lives. The editing is crude and jarring, the camera setups inelegant and obvious, and the performances have, with the exception of Lohan’s, the air of non-actors reading cue cards. The film doesn’t resemble the work of an experienced major director or even the awkward first effort of a promising neophyte; it’s softcore porn without the sex, thrill, or craftsmanship.
Most irritating is the probability of The Canyons being wielded by the press to predictably bludgeon Lohan yet again. The actress’s performance is extremely awkward, and she’s never convincing (though that’s probably impossible in this context), but she exudes an intense, vulnerable carnality that threatens to evade the trap of Schrader and Ellis’s canned thematic. Even at her worst, you can’t take your eyes off Lohan, who physically imbues her character with a wealth of compromise, hunger, and despair that’s well beyond this film’s puny imagination.