Author Bret Easton Ellis and director Paul Schrader collaborate to tell the story of a young film producer and beneficiary of a trust fund (James Deen) whose life unravels when he discovers his girlfriend (Lindsay Lohan) once had an affair with the leading man (Nolan Gerard Funk) of his latest project.
SYDNEY UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL: The Canyons’ origins in the seedy film noir B-movies of yesteryear are obvious in Paul Schrader’s sad, sordid take on the life of the rich and vacuous in the City of tarnished Angels. Working from the pen of Bret Easton Ellis, that purveyor of immoral fascination and anti-heroes, Schrader opens with a montage of long-gone movie palaces, the kind where folks off the street could indulge in dark cinematic doses of sinister sex and violence.
The exposition flows like cheap Californian wine
Those words – 'sinister sex and violence’ – all but sum up the collaboration between the screenwriter of Taxi Driver and the author of American Psycho. I’m certain that the two would argue that there is more to chew on here than just frank fornication and the shadow of brutality; that their intent was to expose the shallow, spoilt world of trust-fund brats, talentless wannabes and Hollywood’s meat-grinder approach to dreams and ambitions. But that’s another movie entirely (John Schlesinger’s Day of the Locust, actually, or Robert Altman’s The Player).
Instead, we are welcomed into a Los Angeles that caters to the self-involved indulgences of the wealthy and bored; egocentric people with money they never earned, driven to dire deeds as a release to relieve the mundane repetitiveness of their privileged, directionless lives. These aren’t great characters to have at the centre of your film. Hell, even Schrader seems to hate his cast. But their antics and agendas have an engaging soap opera quality.
The film opens on the most simple of set-ups: a table for four at a swanky LA noshery. Seated to the right of screen, part-time producer Tara (Lindsay Lohan) and her douche-bag partner, Christian (James Deen); to the left, Christians’ sweet PA, Gina (Amanda Brooks), and her hunky but dim beau, Ryan (Nolan Funk). The exposition flows like cheap Californian wine: Tara talked Christian into funding a teen slasher pic in which Ryan will star as the lead; Christian, much to Tara’s embarrassment, lets Ryan and Gina in on the details of his penchant for group sex.
Subplots emerge that fold in on themselves at regular intervals. Tara and Ryan have a passionate past and still indulge in steamy, loving dalliances; Christian is screwing a yoga instructor, Cynthia (Tenille Houston), who used to sleep with Ryan; Christian is sensing Tara is unfaithful, and so on. There are further developments, most of which grow increasingly ludicrous and occasionally hilarious.
You may spend the first hour of The Canyons searching for meaning, trying to locate the cutting social satire that made Ellis an important voice in the '80s (in addition to his yuppie-bashing classic American Psycho, he skewered coke-fuelled excess with Less Than Zero). Don’t bother, as there really is nothing particularly profound or incisive to be found here. If any subtext or commentary can be implied, it’s in the spot-on casting. The weathered, wayward but undeniably talented Lohan, the poster child for Hollywood’s indulgent lifestyle (frankly, it’s sad that at 25 she already appears too old for the part), imbues Tara with a depth not evident in Ellis’ script.
The only rung lower than Lohan’s on the ladder of infamy is hardcore porn, so the casting of famed woodsman James Deen is entirely appropriate. Tellingly sticking with his stage name over 'Bryan Sevilla’, there will never be any confusing Deen with a trained thespian but he exudes all the slimy, sociopathic charm the role of Christian requires. Deen’s primary claim to fame is revealed in one scene, though Schrader’s take on sex and nudity is as shallow as the rest of the film; only the most easily aroused will derive any titillation from The Canyons.
Technical credits are fine considering the reported budget was a meagre US$250,000, partly from a KickStarter campaign. That typical white-light intensity of LA exteriors is captured well by cinematographer John DeFazio, though it takes some getting used to.