Paul Schrader crafts a fascinating mess in 'The Canyons' ★★

Michael Phillips

Talking Pictures

August 15, 2013


Already trolling for customers online, "The Canyons" is a four-auteur folly of considerable interest despite its badness.

Director Paul Schrader gave us Los Angeles' darkly sunny side half a lifetime ago in "American Gigolo," and lots of good, knotty psychodrama since then. He teamed up for "The Canyons" with screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis, the enfant-terrible in every sense of the word, whose "Less Than Zero" sprang from the post-"American Gigolo" period.

Consider "The Canyons" a miniature variation of those pictures. Lindsay Lohan (auteur three) stars as a hard-drinking, trashed-out LA denizen currently living the high-low life with a trust fund punk (James Deen, No. 4). The latter has control issues and a penchant for group encounters, as long as he's the one behind the iPhone while the naked bodies are being filmed.

Beginning with an opening montage of still photographs depicting abandoned, decrepit multiplexes and single-screen movie houses, everything in "The Canyons" refers directly or indirectly to the death of movies. The Deen character is soulless depravity in good-looking threads. Throughout the film, narratively in the style of Patrick Marber's "Closer" but worse, the same small group of alleged friends and former lovers keep running into one another and blackmailing one another and exploiting and spying on one another, while preparing for a zero-budget slasher film to be shot in New Mexico.

How's Lohan? Here and there, not bad, though separate from her characterization, her performance is a study in anxiety. Certainly there's an extra level of suspense going on each time Lohan's character gets behind the wheel of her car and hits the LA streets. Her co-star is Deen, the veteran porn star (some nudity here, but it's in the bounds of an outlying R rating) with the pouty, Valley Boy line readings that scream, "You'll see soon enough why I wasn't hired for my line readings." He's weak on screen. But Schrader probably knew that. He has referred to "The Canyons," already a legendarily tricky and difficult shoot, as an exemplar of "discard casting."

Ellis is a pluperfect hypocrite, decrying all the objectification and venality afoot in LA while mining it for all he can. Yet Schrader, against the odds, manages a few good shots, even a scene or two that holds together and imparts the right sort of uneasiness. My favorite bit — a throwaway, really — finds the two female leads having lunch at a sidewalk cafe near a busy intersection. The way Schrader sets up one of the angles, it's as if the women are about to be creamed by an oncoming UPS delivery trunk. "The Canyons" may not work, and the sex (as well as the synthesized glop on the soundtrack) may be tragically unhip, but it was made by a director who still cares.


"The Canyons" - 2 stars

No MPAA rating (nudity, violence, language)

Running time: 1:40

Opens: Friday. Also available VOD.