To say the least, it’s rare that a movie with a budget of $250,000 becomes the subject of a 7,600 words article in The New York Times Magazine. It makes a little more sense, when you know that The Canyons was directed by Paul Schrader, who wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and directed American Gigolo and Affliction. More sense when you know the movie, a psychological sex thriller about LA bottom feeders, was written by Bret Easton Ellis, the gay novelist who gave us Less Than Zero and the infamous American Psycho and whose obnoxious Twitter feed sends many people into fits of rage. And they cast the troubled and troubling Lindsay Lohan and the porn superstar James Deen as their leads. Among the unsurprising revelations was that Lohan was incredibly difficult to work with; among the surprising was Schrader directed a sex scene in the nude to convince her to do the scene without clothes. When the movie was finally released in a handful of theaters and on demand, critics arrived with freshly sharpened knives. Many of the reviews have been savage, even cruel, while a few reviewers, like Variety’s Scott Foundas, gave both Lohan and the film raves. I don’t think it deserves either derision or too much applause. It’s beautifully shot, Lohan is good, but Deen isn’t, and Ellis’s screenplay is limp, lacking insight or taste.
The film opens with Christian (Deen) and his girlfriend Tara (Lohan) having dinner with Christian’s assistant Gina (Amanda Brooks) and her boyfriend Ryan (Nolan Funk). Christian is a trust funded dilettante who decided to produce a movie to placate his father, and Tara and Gina had convinced him to cast Ryan in the lead. The dinner is extremely awkward, almost entirely due to Christian’s inappropriate disinterest in the dinner and inappropriate revelation that he likes to find guys and girls to join him and Tara for sex. His entire demeanor is hostile and arrogant, while Tara is embarrassed, Gina is blithely used to it all, and Ryan bounces back and forth between mortified and mystified. After dinner, Christian and Tara have sex with a guy Christian found on a hook-up smartphone app watches and masturbates. The next morning, Tara and Ryan have coffee and we discover they’ve been having an affair. The rest of the movie focuses on Christian’s increasing paranoia about Tara’s cheating, Ryan attempts to convince Tara to leave Christian, and how Christian’s ex-girlfriend Cynthia (Tenille Houston) gets caught up in everyone’s machinations.
Playing a failed former model who is with a cruel man only for his money, Lohan is perfectly cast. She knows the dark side of Hollywood, and it seems that her travels through addiction, derision, and being the object of creepy fascination have given her quite the ability to be perform fear and desperation. There are at least three scenes – two towards the end – that she’s good enough to remind you why she was once thought to have such great potential as actress. But Deen, who is a great actor in porn, is convincingly evil but not convincingly human; his line readings are rote, his timing stunted, and his expressions thought through rather than authentically felt. Funk, Brooks, and Houston are all believable, though Funk and Lohan had little chemistry.
The real problem with the film is Ellis’s screenplay, which feels like the first draft of a mediocre idea. Tara is the only character whose motivations make sense, and Christian just seems like American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman’s less interesting cousin. Aside from a couple flashes of verve, Ryan is a hapless Hollywood stereotype. Lucky for everyone, Schrader can shoot a movie, with one brilliantly framed, gorgeously lit image after another. As he did in American Gigolo, Schrader’s ability to make beautiful what is rotting under the Los Angeles sun is revelatory.
Directed by Paul Schrader
Written by Bret Easton Ellis
Starring Lindsay Lohan, James Deen, and Nolan Funk