The decay of modern cinema permeates The Canyons — and not just because the film sucks. Director Paul Schrader begins and ends the movie with still shots of abandoned movie theaters, clearly signifying the death of the movie-going experience we grew up idolizing. Old school cinemas used to be signposts of glitzy Hollywood, a window into the world we wanted to live in, that projected our dreams onto a big screen. Now they are signposts of collapse — empty, dilapidated, gone. Some would argue — Schrader is certainly among them — that it’s not just the buildings that have shut down, but also the righteous experience of film itself. His response: make a high-camp schlockfest that presents itself as a self-serious wannabe-porno, which is releasing on a very limited number of theater screens as it embarks on a much wider VOD release. If Schrader is right and cinema is dying, The Canyons functions as one of the nails in the coffin.
Not that the film isn’t a fascinating curiosity, if for no other reason than the constant wondering over when the wheels are going to fall off and the whole enterprise will spin out of control. With a director like Schrader, a screenwriter like Bret Easton Ellis, and a cast headlined by Lindsay Lohan and porn star James Deen, it might seem like this is a cinematic suicide pact. Maybe it is, though they only things likely to die as a result are the careers of everyone involved.
Funny thing is, the two leading actors acquit themselves fairly well, especially since the Ellis screenplay is such a mind-numbing piece of vain scatology that, with a slight tonal tweak, could succeed as self-parody. Lohan and Deen navigate the tricky terrain of material that begs them to play it straight, so that they will look silly instead of the script. But Deen always seems to be winking at the camera, relishing the role as though he was given the opportunity to play Patrick Bateman’s long lost son (which he basically is). And though often forced to recite lugubrious over-the-top monologues, Lohan is able to reach a level of emotion it seemed she had long ago lost. These actors are interesting to watch, but the environment of this film undercuts them at every turn.
Lohan and Deen play Tara and Christian, a “couple” on the fringes of Hollywood whose relationship is based almost solely on the tenets of debasement and subjugation. Their union is a constantly-shifting power struggle fueled by sex, drugs, and tanning. The pre-production process on their latest movie project opens a floodgate of jealousy, anger, and regret that seems to be moving inexorably toward some sort of grandiose crime, or tragedy, or any other similarly overdramatic conclusion.
The Canyons‘ most incriminating sin is its screenplay, written by Ellis as a greatest-hits montage of his most frequent themes — social downfall, disaffection taken to extremes. Not content with the surface material, Schrader adds the elements of cinematic decay to buttress the thematic mockery. However, mockery in itself is neither an eloquent nor very effective satiric strategy… though it can be useful for a few easy chuckles. Straight-faced mockery, however, is an annoying bore, since the method is just as shallow but the laughs are unintentional. The Canyons falls squarely into the latter category, not so much commenting on the downfall of cinema as facilitating it with cheap thrills and lazy ridicule.