If The Canyons was nearly as bold and audacious as one might expect by the creators of both Taxi Driver and American Psycho, it would have been a not so joyous return to the Hollywood front line for famed director Paul Schrader and former Hollywood up-and-comer Lindsay Lohan along with porn star James Deen in his first mainstream movie role.
Unfortunately, The Canyons isn't that particularly bold nor audacious and, in fact, it has the constant look and feel of a movie that would have been bold and audacious, perhaps, in the mid 1980s. The Canyons isn't a bad film, but neither is it the film that will rejuvenate the careers of Schrader or Lohan nor will it turn Deen into anything resembling a household name.
That's a shame.
The material is there and primed for the taking. Bret Easton Ellis, author of such literary gems as American Psycho and Less Than Zero, has penned a film that mines familiar territory for the author - the underbelly of the film industry and the darker side of a rather unlikable group of Angelenos. Christian (Deen) is a trust fund kid with an interest in moviemaking and a girlfriend, Tara (Lohan), whose motivation to get some semblance of a better life allows her to compromise just about everything she believes in and actually wants out of life. When an old flame of Tara's, Ryan (Nolan Funk), is cast in the lead of Christian's low-budget slasher flick, the old flame gets rekindled despite the fact that Ryan is actually dating Christian's assistant, Gina (Amanda Brooks).
Don't worry. It doesn't actually matter.
The problem is that as vividly as Bret Easton Ellis writes it seems damn near impossible for anyone, now including Schrader, to actually bring his stories to life. While Less than Zero was modestly successful and American Psycho has grown into a cultish hit of sorts, the simple truth is that Bret Easton Ellis is a far better writer than the films based upon his works would have you believe. There are few authors who can so vividly and honestly paint the dark side of life without feeling morally bound to create the obligatory sympathetic character. Schrader would seem to be the director to do it, but this low-budget indie that was largely funded by Kickstarter never rises above its not particularly interesting and surprisingly bland sexuality.
If you've followed Lohan's career for any length of time, then you already know that she was once one of Hollywood's most promising young actresses before her life and career took a few detours. The good news is that The Canyons is a reminder of that potential even if she doesn't particularly live into it fully. In fact, there's a wall between Lohan and the audience in this film and it's a wall that isn't helped at all by a jarring lack of chemistry with Deen and Funk. It's almost as if Lohan isn't quite sure she wants to be here, though out of fairness to her that's actually a great approach for this constantly disjointed character. There are moments, however, in this film where you can see the gifted actress Lohan is come to life and you can't help but wish someone would cast her in something that doesn't exploit the exploitational quality of her current life and story.
James Deen, despite his obvious good looks and devil may care attitude, is an odd choice to portray a character whose genuine unlikable needs to be shaded enough to keep the audience watching. While Deen may very well grow into a genuine actor, he's not there yet and his performance as Christian is more like one shade of grey. Nolan Funk, as well, doesn't quite master the complexities needed to create a compelling Ryan. I found myself regularly thinking about Taylor Lautner and, in case you're wondering, that's not exactly a compliment. Gus Van Sant makes a brief appearance, while Tennille Houston actually serves up the film's highlight performance.
John DeFazio's lensing is solid throughout the film's well lit scenes, but the hoped for scenes between Lohan and Deen when they occur are so dimly lit that any potential satisfaction is lost in the shadows. The other tech credits are about what you'd expect from a modestly budgeted indie production.
The Canyons isn't anywhere near the disaster that some will lead you to believe and one would think the publicity from having both Lindsay Lohan and James Deen alone should allow the film to recoup its rumored $250,000 production budget. The film opens on August 2 at New York's IFC Center and through VOD outlets. It'll also be bowing at the Venice International Film Festival with planned indie/arthouse screenings to follow.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic