The best moment of “The Canyons” arrives before any of its actors show up. While opening credits zap on to the screen, images of decayed movie theaters flit by, establishing a sense of dread for cinema’s future. The plot of “The Canyons,” in which dead-eyed young people hover around Hollywood with zero interest in the quality of the work, takes this gloomy prophesy to heart. But instead of commenting on the vapidity of the film industry, Paul Schrader’s miscast and utterly soulless drama is an example of the failing art form it seeks to indict. Though it has real ideas, Schrader and his team never manage to put them into action.
“The Canyons” arrives at the tail-end of a saga first publicized early this year, when a nearly 7,500-word article in The New York Times magazine documented its troubled production, much of which involved star Lindsay Lohan’s disastrous work ethic that ranged from on-set tantrums to late-night party sessions that thew off the entire schedule. None of those details would matter if “The Canyons” weren’t itself such a self-conscious trainwreck filled with provocations it falls short of putting into action.
Despite its shortcomings, “The Canyons” does accurately reflect a powerful meeting of minds: Schrader, whose gritty portraits of disturbed men lost in their obsessions range from Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver” to Julian Kaye in “American Gigolo,” finds another materialistic headcase in over-privileged movie producer Christian (porn star James Deen), crafted without a modicum of sympathy by another expert chronicler of grime, Bret Easton Ellis, who supplies “The Canyons” with its lethargic screenplay. Schrader matches Ellis’ grim dialogue with an equally dour atmosphere, but the movie plays more like an amateur ode to their talent than an actual example of it.
Aptly described and damned with faint praise by Variety critic Scott Foundas as “a cross between Easton Ellis’ ‘American Psycho’ and Schrader’s ‘American Gigolo'” in a press release announcing the movie’s distribution, “The Canyons” echoes those works but lacks their nuances. The movie reveals its heavy-handedness from the very first scene, set at a posh restaurant, where the stone-faced Christian sits with his pouty-eyed arm candy Tara (Lohan) during a double-date with her friend Gina (Amanda Brooks) and her man Ryan (Nolan Funk), as he gears up for the lead role in a movie that Christian plans to make. Rolling his eyes when not glancing at his smartphone, Christian shamelessly talks about his swinger lifestyle while Tara sinks into her seat. There’s no subtext here; it’s all plain and simple: Trust-fund baby Christian is the devil, and the cheapness of the industry sustains his evil.
Unfortunately, it can’t sustain “The Canyons,” which awkwardly shifts into a thriller as Christian slowly becomes aware of Tara’s liaison with Ryan, who got the role in Christian’s movie only after Tara put in a good word for him. As his suspicions rise, Christian mounts a plan for vengeance against the struggling actor, leading to relatively tame scenes of sexual humiliation and eventually a rather predictable murder. Schrader’s direction, while sullied by a confusing shift of formats and other glaring technical issues, mostly stays out of the way; the mounting scenes of drama don’t make the mediocrities especially pronounced so much as they coalesce into a dry, insipid whole. Brendan Canning’s eerie score and the occasionally nifty camerawork can’t bypass the gratingly lo-fi production values and a lifeless atmosphere.
Of course, apologists could easily make the point that the prevalent emptiness is a canny reflection of the filmmakers’ intentions: This is the future of the film industry and the people inhabiting it — and it ain’t pretty. “Do you like movies?” Lohan asks at one point in a conversation with her friend. Her tired delivery provides the answer. While “The Canyons” is populated by horribly vapid people, the promise of that fatalistic portrait never amounts to anything particularly insightful.
Schrader creates a more hypnotically unsettling vision when focused on the movie’s erotic thriller aspects. But even with a topless Lohan and a group sex scene lit by swirling neon lights, the story fails to surprise. “I like the idea of somebody looking at something they can’t have,” Christian says when explaining his penchant for inviting strangers to watch him have sex. “The Canyons” embodies that perspective as it continually reaches for the possibilities of a more astutely crafted tale.
So “The Canyons” is a bad movie about the world of bad movies, which might make it sound like the victim of its own vitriol. But it’s nearly impossible to appreciate it even on those terms. Lohan’s performance is certainly terrible, but her steady slide started long ago; “The Canyons” has nothing on the awesomely horrendous 2007 “I Know Who Killed Me,” a ultra-campy fusion of art house and crime movie tropes that fell apart in several directions at once.
Here, Lohan is as bland and unfocused as the material. During the one scene that allows her degrade her oppressive boyfriend, her robotic delivery freezes the possibilities of bonafide tension (as well as titillation, for whatever that’s worth). “I don’t like to feel like I’m not in control,” Christian moans to his shrink, and while those may be Ellis’ words, Schrader probably can relate. “The Canyons” has no discernible identity, resulting in the rare case where the story of the production outdoes the final product: As an indictment of the modern filmmaking practice, it’s only effective because it fails.
Criticwire grade: D+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? IFC Films releases “The Canyons” in theaters and cable VOD on August 2nd. Bound to generally receive negative reviews, it may manage some decent returns if treated as a cult object, but long-term theatrical prospects are looking pretty dim. On VOD, it should do solid business to the combination of genre, star and sex.