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Review and Roundup: In Defense of Paul Schrader’s Misunderstood ‘The Canyons’

Review and Roundup: In Defense of Paul Schrader's Misunderstood 'The Canyons'

The Canyons” never had a chance. 

Several things led people to make up their minds about it before there was even a release date. The New York Times Magazine profile of the film’s production flayed star Lindsay Lohan from the inside out. The frustrated remarks of director Paul Schrader and screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis didn’t help, nor did the film’s repeated rejection from festivals. But the movie deserves to be checked out with an open mind. This low-budget thriller, while brazenly flawed, is never boring. And for the record, Lindsay Lohan, terror-stricken and hanging by a thread, has never been better.

On any other film, the plague of misfortune that befell “The Canyons” might seem like an elaborate trick, a publicity stunt conceived to cook up controversy and fill seats. But Schrader’s dogged refusal to conform to the expectations of hype and his earnest commitment to the $250,000 project lend this brouhaha real authenticity. Remember, this is the screenwriter of “Raging Bull” and “Taxi Driver,” and the director of 17 major films.

A lurid melodrama about beautiful people doing very bad things in the unforgiving environs of Hollywood, “The Canyons” is not a total success. It’s an uneven but near-great film, boasting serious talent, and along its nihilistic path it casts an artfully anesthetizing spell. Like the film’s infamously trying production and its central character Tara — who Lohan acts the hell out of — “Canyons” careens wildly from one extreme to the next. 

But it isn’t just so-bad-it’s-good kitsch. “The Canyons” ultimately is good, hard to admire, yes, but harder to look away from. And like another misunderstood, ennui-soaked arthouse indie in current release, Nicholas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives,” “The Canyons” could wind up as a midnight movie and mythological cinematic artifact.

Christian (James Deen) is a spoiled trust fund brat who indulges in producing B-rate slasher movies, which star his live-in actress girlfriend Tara (Lohan). In the ethereally lensed opening scene, they’re at dinner with fellow wannabe actors Gina (Amanda Brooks) and Ryan (Nolan Funk). Everyone’s on their smartphones, barely invested in whatever inane conversation they’re having, when Christian tunes in to the chemistry Tara and Ryan appear to be telegraphing. Tara claims she’s never met him before, but we eventually learn that Tara and Ryan do in fact know each other: they have history. When Christian, devoutly misogynistic and devoid of conscience, confirms this information, he goes out for blood, one-by-one denuding the identities of everyone in his lifeless inner circle.

Though he keeps her on a leash, Christian won’t admit that Tara — love-starved and loyal, but knowing — is his girlfriend. He says it’s more fun to keep things complicated. By this he means bringing outside parties into their sex life, strangers he meets on a dating app. Tara, eager to please, indulges Christian’s fascination with threesomes and goes as far as letting him film the encounters.

A textbook sociopath and serial cheater, Christian thinks the world is his movie and that he’s directing it. From his glass house in the Hollywood Hills, he manipulates everyone below him with little regard to consequence. Playing a dissolute master of his own grisly universe, Deen is dead-sexy but efficient at best. He may be a porn actor, but he’s not a movie actor. But we’re never encouraged to think otherwise. With an invasive camera often unsettlingly positioned head-on, Schrader exploits his leading man’s slinky sangfroid. A third act dip into sheer psychopathy is pure Bret Easton Ellis and Deen is the ideal actor to inhabit an Ellis character. He’s hot, tightly coiled and with little depth, even in scenes with his therapist (played by Gus Van Sant). Those shifty bedroom eyes belie nothing. 

Because everything onscreen is so glamorous on the outside yet grotesque and troubled on the inside, “The Canyons” is the most evocative film about the soul-sucking current of Hollywood life since David Lynch’s “Inland Empire.” That was another intensely personal film about a woman losing herself in a role. Here Lohan is all split ends and frayed edges. The deeper the film plunges–her performance is as nervous and insecure as shaky hands in need of a cigarette– the harder it is to tell the girl on the screen from the girl who’s playing her. Tara, like someone else we know, wants the world to believe she’s in control at all times, and only in private moments does her icily engineered composure reveal her inner chaos. There’s a violent, fettered yet buried passion in this woman. 

In the film’s centerpiece sex scene, Schrader shoots a foursome in harassing close-ups and shaded in trashy neon light as Tara finally takes control and makes emasculating demands. This sequence, prudish given the male porn star onset and at the ready (the film is unrated) has a gritty sex tape quality that draws us into the interior worlds of Lohan and her character. Sure, Tara is getting off on demanding that another guy blow her piece-of-shit boyfriend. But Lohan, too, gleefully goes for broke, knowing that if there’s a moment in the film to sink her teeth in, this is it.

To the chagrin of those who love a woman on the edge, there aren’t nearly enough scenes that allow Lohan to showcase her woozy mood swings, iconic smoker’s rasp and her flair for drama. Her panicky, unpredictable behavior during the shoot is in evidence here. In scenes of extreme, personal vulnerability, she nails it. But when sharing the camera with rival costar Deen, Lohan’s mind seems elsewhere, and there’s an emotional moat around her. Still, how much can the actress be discredited for numbly portraying a woman exactly as written: dead inside?

As are all of the characters. But this is the intention of nihilists Schrader and Ellis, for whom detached moral centers are their wheelhouse. They sought to make a film about stilted ciphers sleepwalking through the lower dens of Hollywood on the slimmest of budgets, and they did exactly that. Ellis’ novels such as “American Psycho” and “Less Than Zero,” in which everyone is a specimen in a jar, are no different. This film has no soul. And yet.

Underneath “The Canyons”‘ plastic deadness rattles a broken Lohan who, poor thing, has had a bad go of it in recent years, and though she struggles, she’s trying. She’s really, really trying. When Tara confesses to Ryan, the man she loves but can’t ever be with, that she chose Christian out of necessity, because “I really needed someone to take care of me,” it’s not just Tara we believe. It’s Lohan. And we really believe her.

“The Canyons” hits theaters this Friday. Review roundup after the jump.

Village Voice:

[Schrader] channels his feelings of disappointment, of longing, of an unnameable bummed-out something, through Lindsay Lohan. She’s 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.

Entertainment Weekly:

The final film is a tight, diverting piece of work. Its amusement (and limitation) is that it dares to take Ellis’ florid cynicism deadly seriously… There is much more noirish kink and duplicity on hand. But Schrader tries to find the human side of it all, and he scores with Lohan, who taps a vulnerability beneath her dissolution to remind you why she’s still a movie star.

Time Out New York:

She (Lohan) isn’t the best thing about this awful, lounged-out drama — it has no best thing — but in her defense, Lohan has been atrociously directed, allowed to get away with the worst aspects of her vocal-fry laziness, and trotted out like a symbolic objet d’art.

AV Club:

“The Canyons” is, in other words, a movie that simply doesn’t want to work in a conventional sense. There’s something brazen, maybe even admirable, about Schrader’s mismatched camera setups, or the way he uses wide-angle lenses to cram as much empty space into the frame as possible. Schrader made his name with feverish portraits of self-loathing and self-destruction—his screenplays for “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull,” his fractured biopic “Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters” —but here he adopts a tone so cold that it is becomes deliberately off-putting.

The Dissolve:

Like Sofia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring” earlier this summer, “The Canyons” is set on the fringes of the movie business, and stars its youngest and most beautiful barnacles. They both look like films about celebrity, but they’re really about exhibitionism, and the need modern young people have to express themselves, despite their utter lack of anything to express. When they run out of things to do, they turn to crime. In this world, fame and infamy are almost interchangeable. But if Schrader and Ellis set out to prove that movies are dying or already dead, they might have done their job too well. “The Canyons” doesn’t play like the cure for a moribund industry, so much as a mildly effective, highly depressing administration of the last rites.

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