Paul Schrader’s The Canyons is a lardboat of sex and dumb dialogue and great tits, and unless you’ve abstained from masturbation and the internet for the past year, you’ve probably already heard of it. The media pumped audiences with gossip from the set (most notably the best article the New York Times has published in a long time), and with the combination of Lindsay Lohan, James Deen, and America’s favorite vacant writer, Bret Easton Ellis, The Canyons promised to be a delicious corpse. The trailer offered up a good dose of sleazy noir, and I had high hopes for great lingerie, lots of murder, James Deen’s beautiful cock, and Lindsay Lohan seductively sipping highball after highball. There is some of that, but not nearly enough. What we end up with is a wet fart in the wind of cinematic depictions of Los Angeles. The Canyons is slim with a handful of ‘almost pornographic’ sex scenes, a couple of interesting shots, and Ellis’ screenplay sounding like a diet version of his books, inane and smug with some nice punctuation. It’s no Mulholland Drive, but then again Schrader’s plastic indecency doesn’t aim very high — in fact, it doesn’t aim anywhere at all. Watching The Canyons feels like looking at the Facebook feed of the rich and famous for twelve hours without any fast food in sight.
Tara (Lohan) and Christian (Deen) are a Hollywood power couple who occasionally indulge in group sex and spend the rest of their time looking at their iPhones to arrange said orgies. They wear attractive clothing. Sometimes they talk about trust and relationships, and how beautiful Tara is, and how much money Christian has. Tara is banging Ryan (Nolan Funk — how’s that for a name?), the lead actor in Christian’s movie. Christian finds out, and gets really aggro in the way Ellis’ men tend to get aggro — they kill, and get away with it. Everyone is very tense.
As much as I hate subscribing to, or discussing, the notion of ‘acting,’ there’s really nothing else to talk about in this film other than the two lead performances. The Canyons is void of any layers, any interesting shifts in narrative positions that would make it seem less definable and more complex. Every scene plays like an extended joke, mostly due to Deen’s performance, which is so amazingly bad it’s hypnotic. I can’t think of any porn performer acting in non-adult films who falls so flat on their face with forced emotion as Deen does over and over again. I’ve been a fan of his porn for years, and I distinctly remember the first time I visited his blog and his Twitter, because the personae he presented off-set was hyperactively young in a way that seemed at odds with how seriously he fucked women. It makes sense for Ellis and Schrader to want Deen in their film, as his overzealous bro mentality and mega porn-star status provide a nice complement to Christian’s trashy sophistication. But unlike Rocco Siffredi in the brilliant Anatomy of Hell, Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience, or even Nina Hartley in Boogie Nights, Deen seems to think he was hired to act. What’s great about Siffredi and the others is that they saw no difference between what they did for people to watch and masturbate to, and what they did for people to watch and discuss over dinner; they were hired because of who they were and because the director (and the audience) wanted to see them move in a different light. But Deen seems too aware of the fact that he’s acting in a non-adult film, and there’s something both awful and child-like about his forced delivery.
Schrader opens the film with shots of abandoned movie theaters, as if they were mass graves for the sacrificial lambs of Hollywood. It’s kind of an obvious punch, but to Schrader’s credit, carrying the ‘movies don’t exist anymore as anything other than abandoned houses’ theme throughout your own film is an intriguing move, especially having been part of such greatness as Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, and Affliction. Several times the actors discuss the death of film and the lack of creative process in their own lives — albeit in one or two fragmented sentences with a heavy dose of smirk, but the idea is still there. And what better actor to drive this home than Lohan, whose own sacrifice has been at the hands of those of us paying twelve bucks to see her breasts and rumored on-set meltdown. Her best moments in the film are, yes, when she’s losing her shit, sobbing to Deen’s stupidly menacing face, and there’s genuine terror coming across the screen that convinces. The combination of plastic surgery, pill bloat, and eyes so glazed and unfocused that one could mistake them for blindness, make up the Lohan we now see. Youth recedes and what’s left is the body you’ve made. And with the other performances coming off dry as toast, it’s easy for Lohan’s desperation to glisten as she stands in six-inch heels, tall and broken.