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Cage Match: ‘The Canyons’

Cage Match: 'The Canyons'

In Cage Match, Criticwire picks one critic on each side of a divisive movie and lets them fight it out. Two reviews enter; one review leaves.

This week’s bout: Stephanie Zacharek of the Village Voice and the New York Times’ Manhola Dargis go G.L.O.W. over The Canyons, Paul Schrader’s lament for a movie town gone to seed, starring one of its seediest products: Lindsay Lohan.


A movie can be highly imperfect, stilted, or implausible in all sorts of ways — and still be everything you go to the movies for. The Canyons, Paul Schrader’s contemplation of moral decay in Hollywood, is that kind of picture, in some places so crazy-silly you want to laugh and in others so piercing you can’t turn away. 


The Canyons — directed by Paul Schrader, written by Bret Easton Ellis and starring Lindsay Lohan — is a dispiriting, unpleasurable work punctuated with flashes of vitalizing vulgarity. It isn’t a good movie in terms of the conventional norms (acting for starters), but it also exhibits a crude integrity. 


Schrader has plenty to say: He kicks off with a montage of boarded-up, tumbling-down movie theaters, and their visages reappear throughout the film like sad little ghosts. 


There’s a similar idea about death and movies swirling in The Canyons, most obviously with the figure of Christian, an avatar of both entitlement and entertainment who’s solely interested in making pornographic home videos, not actual movies. When he waves his cell — that onanistic toy, emblem of pathological narcissism and augury of social dissolution — he’s waving it not only at his dinner companions but also at us. It’s a provocative idea that’s soon lost amid the self-consciously deployed cliches that finally do the movie in.


[Lohan is] the picture’s muse and its Shiva, its reason for existing and the force that threatens to tear it apart. People who don’t understand movies often speak of them as escapism, a kind of passive fantasy. Lohan’s performance in The Canyons, so naked in all ways, is the ultimate retort to that kind of idiocy: To watch it is to live in the moment.


Ms. Lohan, ornamented with a topknot and Cleopatra eyeliner, wavers in and out of the scene much as she does for the rest of the movie, pulling you in with husky murmurings and pushing you away with darting glances that suggest a woman searching for the exit. 


Schrader must feel as lost in the current landscape as Tara does. In that way, they’re two of a kind, and the world he’s created for her here is half home sweet home and half toxic planet. Cinematographer John DeFazio makes L.A. daylight look both bleached-out and creamy. This is a place, like the Hollywood of David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., where you can live your dreams or become completely trapped–you’re unlucky only if you can’t tell which is which.


Every so often, Mr. Schrader manages to deliver a jolt, an image, a line reading and even a scene — like a narratively decisive down-and-dirty sexual four-way — that fleetingly lifts The Canyons. But his struggle is as palpable as his budgetary limitations, both of which are painfully evident…. With The Canyons, he tries to get at something real under all the hard, glossy surfaces, but ends up caught in the divide between the movie that he seems to have wanted to make and the one he did.

The winner: While plenty of The Canyons‘ detractors are content to sneer at it, Dargis actually wrestles with its substance; it’s striking how similar some of her observations are to Zacharek’s, even though they end up in very different places. Everyone loves an underdog, but in this case Criticwire awards Dargis a narrow victory on points.

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I understand movie criticism, but why are you all trying SO HARD to analyze this movie all because Lindsay Lohan was in it and Paul Schrader directed it???

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