Published Aug 06, 2013During the opening credit sequence and peppered throughout The Canyons are lingering flashes of closed movie theatres, either long boarded up or dilapidated through years of decay. It's an obvious but telling image that ties into the guiding subject indirectly affecting and framing the lives of LA trust fund kid Christian (James Deen), his duplicitous girlfriend Tara (Lindsay Lohan), his alacritous assistant Gina (Amanda Brooks) and her wannabe actor boyfriend Ryan (Nolan Gerard Funk).
Ryan, a mostly unknown actor, was cast in a low budget horror film partially funded by Christian. In part, his role was secured by his girlfriend Gina, with Tara stepping in during early development to reiterate the importance of casting this rather bland, presumably bad, actor. But before these rote, rather transparent, plot machinations propel this standard jealousy and control admonitory forward, the softcore, voyeuristic tendencies are made clear in an opening scene with the two couples having a drink and discussing Tara and Christian's tendency to meet people on a hetero version of Grindr for casual 3-way shenanigans.
As written by Bret Easton Ellis, the abject morality and shrewd manipulation employed by these disenchanted, almost deadened, ciphers is unsurprising. His preoccupation with the causal effects of elitism and capitalist indulgence on the young and entitled is perpetual and self-telling, having a simultaneous distain and fetishism for all things prurient. What is peculiar and perhaps deliberate, even considering the low budget, is director Paul Schrader's seeming ineptitude in framing the campy, sulky, on-the-nose dialogue, especially considering his usual tendency towards languid and contemplative, rather than empty and amateurish, imagery.
He vacillates between shoddy framing and invasive, head on close-ups, capturing the lack of nuance in all of the sloppy, ill-considered performances. There's a cheap cable porn look, feel and sound to everything, with poorly lit shots and a hollow synthesized score striving to emulate the beats and machinations of low grade trash verbatim. It makes the tenuously exploitive material simultaneously sleazy and tepid, having an interest in eroticism without indulging, being too preoccupied with theory and social critique—being cold and judgmental while quietly titillated—to know how to manage the bigger joke of it all.
Schrader is as interested in mocking his subjects and the ethos they represent—they're all desperate to be in the film industry even though none of them give a fuck about film—as he is in indulging in Ellis' seedy underworld. And since neither of these focal points has a sense of humour, the lack of subtlety or structural chicanery leaves it all unfolding as a bit of a chore. Christian's inevitable unraveling after learning of Tara's misdeeds with Ryan are almost incidental, justifying the existence of a film that builds up to cheap laser-lit sex scenes where the central couple enact their power games with a naked, writhing audience.
That their sex acts are always captured by Christian's iPhone isn't a mistake. Having little to offer the world but their genitalia, these vapid Hollywood brats want to show off their limited assets, being incapable of greater artistry or veiled imagery. It's something Schrader wants to revel in, pointing out the industry bullshit and social constructs leading to the death of cinema, but is afraid to take to a sensationalist, truly hostile, level. Instead, he avoids camp and reiterates the lack of artistry apparent in the bland, oft reactionary and contradictory, morality parables in the late night erotic thriller genre, leaving everything deliberate enough to ensure that a discerning audience knows they're meant to read more into it all.
It's an interesting, even partially intriguing, experiment that ultimately unfolds painfully, feeling a lot longer than it should while being too stoic and self-aware to be worthy of derision. Had the project gone to a director more interested in exploiting the vampy, cheesy aspects of the banal, even stupid, narrative, The Canyons could have been, at least partially, fun while being highly didactic and critical of modernity. It seems that Schrader, being a theorist and critic, over-thought everything. (Mongrel Media)