It's hard to tell who seems more lost in Paul Schrader's The Canyons. There's Lindsay Lohan, who to her credit appears to at least be trying really, really hard to remember how to act naturally. (Of course, when the effort's so clearly visible, you're pretty much not succeeding.) Her character, Tara, a Hollywood career climber who has hitched her fortunes to an emotionally abusive film producer and party boy, is equally adrift.
Then there's James Deen, playing that producer, Christian, who's making a horror film starring (unbeknownst to him) Tara's former boyfriend and current lover, Ryan (Nolan Funk). Deen has over 1,000 credited roles on IMDb, most of whose titles are unrepeatable in this space, but this is his first role in which the camera is more concerned with what he's doing above the neck. It shows: His line readings are stiffer than ... well, feel free to complete that metaphor on your own.
But the artists who feel truly adrift here are writer Bret Easton Ellis and director Paul Schrader. This is a pair with impressive resumes; both men have created cinematic and literary landmarks. But Ellis, author of American Psycho and Less Than Zero, here is working for the first time on a screenplay not based on a novel. The result has all the familiar Ellis touchstones — notably, privileged young people with more ambition and money than sense — without any of the depth or detail that might come from having written the material in a richer form first. He's like a great singer doing a drunken karaoke version of his own hit single in a bar with a cheap sound system.
Schrader, on the other hand, just seems angry, as if he's using this film as a tinny megaphone for an announcement of his displeasure with a Hollywood that's left him behind. The writer of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and the director of American Gigolo, Schrader has spent the past decade helming critical and commercial failures with progressively smaller budgets. Most of the funding for The Canyons came via a Kickstarter campaign.
One need only watch the film's first minute to see the director's rage made visual: a series of static shots of abandoned and decaying movie houses, ruin porn for the cinematic set. These images, which recur throughout the film, have no direct connection to the relationship drama that forms the real plot of The Canyons. They're just there to announce Schrader's contention that the movies are dead. They're followed by a parade of vapid, sex and status-obsessed 20-somethings, the very people he thinks are standing over the corpse.
It's not that Schrader's argument lacks merit, nor that couching that message within a sleek and seductive suspenser might be a suboptimal way to get it across. But working under massive budgetary restraints, with inexperienced (Deen) or difficult (Lohan) performers, all while clashes between writer, director and producer played out publicly, obviously took a toll on the finished film, which is clumsy, disjointed and sometimes just amateurish.
Conversational scenes feel as stilted and under-rehearsed as the ones in daytime soap operas — or, probably to Deen's disappointment, the porn flicks one suspects he's trying to transition away from. If the film is supposed to be an erotic thriller, it fails there too; the sex scenes are about as titillating as a subpar entry in the Red Shoe Diaries.
I suspect that this is actually intentional, though: Schrader obviously hates these characters so much that he'd like to frame their sexcapades, their affairs and casual partner-sharing, as being just as empty and unfulfilling as their cinema. Even so, his attempts to make them appear ridiculous — as in one foursome scene accompanied by a laser show worthy of a Pink Floyd tribute — feel as forced as Lohan's performance.
Ostensibly a film about the seedy underbelly of the movie industry, The Canyons never actually gets to the making of the film that has brought these characters together and their secret associations to light. They don't care about the movies, except as a means to status and money. But judging from the lack of care that went into making this one, I'm not so sure how much Schrader cares about the movies anymore either.