One of 2013’s most picked-apart movies has been “The Canyons,” a collaboration between director Paul Schrader and writer Bret Easton Ellis, with most of the picking going on before anyone had seen a frame of it.
Gawkers looking for a high-profile train wreck will be disappointed with the results, but those open to a chilly exploration of Hollywood anomie may be surprised at how compelling this tale of amoral showbiz outsiders often manages to be.
(This is, after all, the first collaboration between the creators of “American Gigolo” and “American Psycho,” so hearts and flowers are decidedly missing from the equation.)
Lindsay Lohan, personal baggage in tow, stars as Tara, a one-time member of L.A.’s auditioning class who has left behind the bartending and waitressing gigs in favor of being kept by trust-fund rotter Christian (adult-film star James Deen). Like Cate Blanchett‘s Jasmine in Woody Allen‘s latest, Tara looks the other way at Christian’s more unsavory behavior so long as there are shopping sprees to be enjoyed and Malibu pools by which to tan.
Christian’s a film financier, but he pursues cinema with as little interest as he does his weekly sessions with his therapist (Gus Van Sant), participating in both only to keep his rich father off his back. The blank Christian shows far more interest in finding sexy young men and women on hookup apps who will watch or participate when he has sex with Tara.
Ryan (Nolan Funk), the boyfriend of Christian’s assistant Gina (Amanda Brooks), has just been cast in the lead of a slasher picture that Christian is financing. What Christian doesn’t know — at first, anyway — is that Ryan and Tara used to be lovers. She still has sex with Ryan but refuses to go back to working for a living.
The characters in “The Canyon” are of a piece with the protagonists of “Less Than Zero” and many other Ellis novels about young, rich, disaffected people who talk about movies and careers but have no real interest in doing anything with their lives besides shopping, snorting coke and having sex.
And while it can be a challenge to make characters this vapid jump off the screen — an issue I had with “The Bling Ring,” for instance — there’s a narrative magnetism to following Christian and Tara and Ryan down their respective rabbit holes.
Whether or not Schrader cast them to type, Lohan and Deen are both thoroughly effective here. It’s been something of a public tragedy to watch the bubbly Lohan of “The Parent Trap” and “Mean Girls” go through her public meltdown, and the performer we see here is not the youngster we remember; the Lohan of now, for better or for worse, is perfect for Tara, and it’s a combination of her real-life troubles and her extant skills as an actress that makes this performance work so well. She turns what could have been a voyeuristic turn into a genuine glimpse at a broken soul.
Deen, for his part, has real camera presence; it’s hard to gauge his acting here because, like his counterpart Sasha Grey in “The Girlfriend Experience,” he’s been cast as someone who has compartmentalized sex to be separate from emotion. Still, it’s a real challenge to play a cipher without giving a flat performance, and Deen brings a great deal of life to a character who’s dead inside.
Ellis knows how to find the black heart beating inside the mass media dreams of capitalism, and while the Hollywood types of “The Canyons” live their fantasies without feeling true pleasure, the characters all seem eerily recognizable. Coupled with Schrader’s feel-bad strain of Calvinism, these two artists have given us a watchably toxic nightmare that would make “The Day of the Locust” author Nathaniel West nod in recognition.