The Movie Defender: The Canyons (2013)

The plot sounds like warmed-over Bret Easton Ellis, except Ellis actually wrote it. That the director is Paul Schrader (American Gigolo, Affliction) is too sad to contemplate. – Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

I think they’re trying to say something provocative about the emptiness of Hollywood and the desperation that fame-seeking breeds, something that’s been said before in smarter, sharper ways—by these very veterans of this town and this industry, actually. – Christy Lemire,

Far from the renegade, boundary-pushing, sexually explicit sensation that its makers have been suggesting, The Canyons is a lame, one-dimensional and ultimately dreary look at peripheral Hollywood types not worth anyone’s time either onscreen or in real life. – Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter

My first reaction after watching The Canyons was very favorable. Sure, it was a bleak movie full of despicable characters, but there was a clever streak of humor to some of the dialogue and James Deen’s deadpan performance. But I am aware of my tendency to be more forgiving than I should when it comes to filmmakers I greatly admire. In this case, Paul Schrader was behind the camera, an uncompromising director who has always struggled to get his films made. Was The Canyons really that good or was I cutting a flawed movie a lot of slack because of Schrader’s involvement? After sleeping on it, I’ve decided that it’s not quite as good as I wanted to initially believe, but it is still a compelling film not deserving of the critical drubbing it’s currently taking.

Christian (Deen) and Tara (Lindsay Lohan) are a bored young couple living off his trust fund in Los Angeles. While Christian is tangentially involved in the film industry as an investor in a low-budget horror film his personal assistant Gina (Amanda Brooks) is producing, he spends most of his time setting up group sex sessions with Tara and people they find online. Tara claims to be fine with Christian’s actions, but it’s quickly revealed that she only goes along with this lifestyle because she is afraid of what life would be like if she didn’t have Christian’s money and everything it can buy her.

Of course, while they claim to love each other and to be faithful outside of the agreed-upon hookups with others, each are keeping secrets from the other. Tara is having an affair with Ryan (Nolan Funk), a model-turned-actor whom she helped get the lead role in the film Christian is funding. Ryan just happens to be the man Tara dumped for Christian when she couldn’t handle living the life of poverty that comes along with being a struggling actor. Ryan is now dating Gina, whom he claims to love, even as he sleeps with Tara. Christian, meanwhile, is having an affair with Cynthia (Tenille Houston), a yoga instructor who eventually is revealed to have ties in her past to both Ryan and Tara. Got all that?

The complicated relationships of the characters and the secrets they keep from each other are really not that important. This soap-opera plot is really just an excuse for another of Schrader’s moody character pieces where he forces the viewer to observe some awful people, their amoral activity, and the usually devastating consequences their actions have on those around them. Is it pleasant to watch? Not really. Is there any entertainment value to the film? There is a streak of dark humor in Bret Easton Ellis’ cynical script that keeps the film from feeling like a chore. Is it oddly compelling? Yes, if you can get on Schrader’s poisonous wavelength.

The film doubles as one of Ellis’ studies of bored, rich, possibly psychopathic young men and Schrader’s viciously unsentimental look at how cruel Hollywood can be to those struggling to break in to the film industry. Not surprisingly, both stories go to places that left me feeling the need for a shower.

Deen is strong as Christian. His consistently sour expression broken only occasionally by a creepy smirk, he portrays Christian as a guy who has been getting his way because of his money for so long, he actually believes himself to be the smartest guy in the room at all times. The fact that his investigation into Tara and Ryan is so sloppy and transparent shows him as far from the mastermind he tries to be. Still, with his resources and his ruthlessness pushed on by jealousy, he is dangerous enough to warrant the severe paranoia that Tara exhibits as the movie threatens to move beyond psychological assaults into physical violence.

Much was made of the casting of Lohan in the film, given her numerous troubles. After I Know Who Killed Me, this is the second Movie Defender I’ve written for a Lohan film. Where I felt that film just barely overcame a weak script and Lohan’s rough lead performance with style to burn, with The Canyons, I feel Lohan’s casting is a stroke of genius on Schrader’s part. Whether the twitchy, nervous personality she gives Tara is acting by Lohan or her attempts to hold a real-life nervous breakdown at bay doesn’t matter. The sense of fear and weakness she gives off goes a long way to giving some snap to scenes that are sometimes drained of energy by the flat performance by Funk.

Then again, I do find myself questioning if Funk’s performance is authentically bad or if Schrader directed him to be as lacking in charisma as possible. Much is made in the film of Ryan’s floundering career. He scrapes by as a bartender at a trendy hotel where he is forced to put up with the sexual advances of his manager (Victor Fischbarg), takes the occasional humiliating modeling gig (the one we are shown has him in nothing but a thong), and always seems to be entering a scene after bombing at an audition. If Ryan is supposed to be such a failure as an actor, it makes sense that he should look and act like a pretty block of wood. But while the lack of life behind his eyes makes him a fit for the character, his performance also goes a long way to making the first act kind of a slog to sit through. It also makes me wonder why Tara would possibly still be drawn to him, even if he is marginally less of a creep than Christian.

The overarching point of the film is not that much different from many of Schrader’s films as a director and/or screenwriter. His obsession with viewing people who hide their true (often horrible) selves is made fairly explicit through several conversations. Characters talk about feeling like they are acting at all times or being directed by others in their lives to behave in ways that strip them of their sense of selves. While some of these exchanges feel a little too on-the-nose, they at least show these seemingly shallow characters as having a sense of self-awareness about their own artificiality. In the cases of Christian and Ryan, this awareness is probably the only redeeming trait they have.

Schrader ties this self-consciously artificial behavior to the film’s bitter view of the “new Hollywood.” As presented in the film, the people making movies are not interested in film as an art-form or even in the potential entertainment value of their finished movies. They talk more about using their trust funds to finance low-budget horror flicks to keep their even richer parents off their backs. Producers are shown not caring about how to tell the best story, but concerning themselves with getting the cheapest special effects possible. Actors are nothing but pretty faces without talent. Even Gina, who is the only character with a functioning sense of decency, seems less concerned with the quality of the story she is trying to get filmed and more worried about using her production credit to step up the industry food chain.

The creative bankruptcy of these characters in relation to their filmmaking ambitions is made painfully clear in the film’s opening with a series of shots of closed and crumbling movie theaters. Schrader is pointing to these hateful, jealous, self-pitying people as contributors to the death of cinema. Personally, I think that is a reach on his part, but it’s hard not to look at the deterioration in the quality of films—both studio and indie—and not place some of the blame on a saturation of the market made possible by the increasingly inexpensive ways to produce a movie. The obvious irony is, of course, that Schrader and Ellis have used those same techniques to get their low-budget film made.

While there is a consistently rising level to the cynicism shown by Schrader and Ellis, the film honestly doesn’t dig much deeper into the characters than showing them use and abuse each other. Obviously, I’m still recommending the film, but don’t assume it stands up with the best work either of its creators have done. With that said, it’s a far more interesting and disturbing piece of work than most are giving it credit for. If nothing else, it shows Schrader is not mellowing with age and the fact that he’s still fighting to get his films made his way—outside of the studio system—is an encouraging development.

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