Is The Canyons worth a review? Probably not.
But here’s one anyway.
The Canyons never exactly got a fair shake as a film, though it’s debatable that it ever deserved one. There’s a certain level of pedigree that might otherwise have made it eagerly anticipated — it was written by Bret Easton Ellis, author of one of the seminal works about Los Angeles (Less Than Zero), and directed by Paul Schrader, writer of a couple of seminal films about New York City (Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, most notably). These two joining forces might have seem a promising onslaught of existential nihilism, characters behaving badly, ruinous success, and whathaveyou. Perhaps their sensibilities are a little too similar. But whatever the problem, any expectations for greatness — or even okayness — went out the window when Schrader cast Lindsay Lohan opposite a porn star.
So much could be said about Lindsay Lohan to preface this review, but why bother? Everyone already knows it. A searing article about her erratic behavior on set (when she bothered to show up) ran in The New York Times several months ago, also highlighting The Canyons‘ micro-budget and semi-guerilla shoot, which seemed somewhat surprising for the level of talent involved behind the camera (while in front of it are a bunch of unknowns, a porn star, and an actress who has fallen so far that she’s almost totally uninsurable). Like last year’s Liz & Dick, The Canyons was released to us as a film that could never possibly be good, but one we’d watch to see just how bad it was. Poor Lindsay — she never had a chance with this one.
The Canyons centers around a couple named Tara and Christian. They engage in three- and four-ways and are also secretly cheating on each other, which you might think wouldn’t be such a big deal in such an open relationship, but oh is it ever. Christian produces movies that we never learn much about, and Tara sort of helps, or something. She’s also carrying on a long, hush-hush affair with the intended star of Christian’s next movie, a (supposedly) strapped for cash actor named Ryan, who is dating a woman named Gina who is also somehow involved in Christian’s movie. Meanwhile, Christian sneaks off to have sex with a woman named Cynthia who apparently never leaves her home in Los Feliz. All these people kind of know each other. Got it? No? Well, that’s fine.
Billed as an “erotic thriller,” The Canyons is occasionally erotic and almost never thrilling. (It is no coincidence that nearly every still from this film is of one or more characters sitting around looking bored.) It’s impossible to care about any of these relationships, considering everyone is sleeping with each other, and nobody really has any motivation. To do anything. At all. How worried are we supposed to be that Christian will find out about Tara and Ryan? If Christian were a more menacing, American Psycho-type character (another Bret Easton Ellis work), there might be some actual suspense, but the characters are just completely inert — as is the story.
There are no stakes. There is nothing to care about. We can guess that The Canyons is meant to be a critique of the young, rich, and superficial of Los Angeles, as several of Ellis’ works are, but in order to pull that off, The Canyons would need to be less superficial itself. It isn’t by any means a smart satire, and doesn’t do anything even remotely new. It’s trashy, but barely — in such predictable ways. A four-way sex scene between Christian, Tara, and a random couple briefly livens things up, but otherwise the sex is pretty conventional. But guys — if you’re shooting a lurid movie with no-name actors on a shoestring budget, why not push it all the way and have some sex that’s actually provocative and envelope-pushing?
Thanks to Schrader actually making some effort, The Canyons has a bit of style — no substance, though, thanks to Mr. Ellis. There are a few weird directorial touches, particularly in an awkwardly-shot opening scene that can perhaps be attributed to production problems. But the key to the movie’s undoing is clearly its screenplay, which has nothing but disdain for Hollywood, filmmaking, and apparently human beings in general. This is not surprising from Bret Easton Ellis, who has basically always written stories about lifeless people — they were largely boring stories told in interesting ways. But perhaps he’s been a one-trick pony for too long. This movie has been cast with the very types of people Ellis would write about — a washed-up actress in and out of rehab, a porn star who made tabloid headlines for fake-dating a Teen Mom has-been, and the daughter of a famous songwriter whose brother was just convicted of murdering his girlfriend. But if Bret Easton Ellis hates all these people so much, why doesn’t he just stop writing about them already?
The onus of attention for this film is focused on Lindsay Lohan, and while her performance isn’t exactly good, it’s about as good as anyone else in the movie, and about as good as you could hope for with such a flat script. No one fares well at all here, because very few scenes feel like necessary parts of this would-be story. Bret Easton Ellis stories famously translate poorly to the big screen, because their very nature is anti-cinematic. They’re about a lot of action leading nowhere, lacking change and movement. Moreso than any Seinfeld episode, they’re about nothing. There’s a coat of ickiness surrounding The Canyons because almost no one involved in it actually seems to be trying to make a good movie, or even capable of making one anymore. They don’t care. The production of The Canyons is more of a Bret Easton Ellis story than the film itself, and quite a depressing one. Ellis and Schrader make a rookie mistake of having the only interesting developments happen at the very end, when that would have made a much better jumping-off point — why not follow these people around after we already know one of them’s a killer? Why not…
Oh, never mind. I’m starting to care more about the story of this movie than any of the people who made it ever did, and I shouldn’t waste my time. I have my own stories to write. Better ones. Ones that will, hopefully, star actors who actually want to be in them. Actors who show up on set and actually want to work. And crew with some hope that what they’re making may actually turn out to be fulfilling. Maybe that’s too optimistic for the Hollywood Bret Easton Ellis writes about — the land of snoozy nightmares depicted in The Canyons — but not all of us out here are the walking dead. It just looks that way in bad movies like this one.