When it comes to Paul Schrader, there’s much to be said; more still when it comes to discussing his skill as a writer versus director but when it comes to the disaster that is The Canyons, you can’t say he wasn’t warned – repeatedly – from start to finish.
Dismissed as “pornography” by his actress wife Mary Beth Hurt who quit reading the script just fifty pages in and described as “a pranky noirish thriller” by its screenwriter, American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis, the end result is something in between, which is one of the movie’s biggest problems in that it’s never sure what it wants to be or which story it’s trying to tell.
Centering primarily on a bored, sexually adventurous young Hollywood couple comprised of emotionally detached, arrogant trust fund baby Christian (James Deen) and his former-model turned trophy girlfriend Tara (Lindsay Lohan) he makes a habit of filming in self-directed adult movies on his smartphone, The Canyons initially seems preoccupied with the role of technology in our private lives before veering into melodrama territory.
As such, The Canyons moves from Eyes Wide Shut to a Dangerous Liaisons infused Affair to Remember upon revealing that Tara has been two-timing Christian with Ryan (Nolan Funk), the love of her (old poor) life, whom she meets again when he auditions for a part on Christian’s movie.
Yet in revisiting Schrader’s favorite themes of sexual obsession, envy among the classes, loneliness and alienation which he touched on earlier in his career, the film’s ideas, cinematic influences and use of homage are far more exciting than anything that actually happens onscreen in the lives of its dull, unlikable characters.
Following an intriguing opening montage filled with images of closed, rundown movie theaters, we’re fooled into thinking that Schrader and Ellis are serving up an allegory addressing the death of cinema as the leads use their smartphones for smut, televisions for texting and keep each other at arm’s length by using various screens (from phones to computers) as a shield.
Unfortunately, this issue isn’t carried consistently enough throughout the film as technology takes a backseat to Gaslight tactics as Christian plays mind games with Tara and Ryan.
From asking his assistant Gina (Amanda Brooks) to invite Tara to lunch and report back to him to hiring another man to follow his girlfriend around, Christian’s need to control and manipulate culminates in a random act of violence that doesn’t make much sense in any way other than to give our internalized, villainous plotter something external to do that isn’t sexual for a change.
All of this sounds more riveting than it is and in all actuality, it should be thrilling to noir fans but everything in The Canyons moves onscreen at the pace of a snail – cut together in long, silent takes that are completely out-of-sync with the way the characters actually experience them given their short attention spans and need for technological stimuli.
Rather than the fly-on-the-wall observation employed in The Bling Ring that brings us right into a materialistic young Hollywood environment, everything about The Canyons feels so artificially out-of-touch that it makes the Blu-ray’s roughly hundred minute unrated version feel more than twice the length.
So intrigued yet baffled by the rough cut that even Steven Soderbergh offered to re-edit the film in three days – to which Schrader passed – The Canyons is further proof that the brilliant screenwriter just isn’t a good fit for the director’s chair.
A gifted storyteller whose work on Taxi Driver and Raging Bull should be required reading for aspiring screenwriters, Schrader once had to promise George C. Scott he would never direct another film just to get him to leave his trailer on the set of Hardcore after the actor dubbed him “the worst goddamned director in the world.”
While that’s over-stating the case a bit as Blue Collar and the underrated Light Sleeper are proof that he does have a knack for visual storytelling, perhaps the most disappointing thing about The Canyons is that it doesn’t play to Schrader’s strength in collaborating with Ellis on what is at heart a far too internalized character drama to create a tale well worth telling onscreen. Instead, Ellis is simply writer to Schrader's director.
Wasting the undeniable talent of Lindsay Lohan, whose subtle performance is overshadowed by Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? level makeup that suggests a future for the film as a camp classic, The Canyons boasts some compelling ingredients for a paranoid Tinsletown set Dangerous Liaison but buries them in long takes that convey nothing but silence, boredom and disappointment.
While it easily ensures viewers are as disinterested as the characters onscreen no matter how much nudity we see, we have one advantage over Lohan’s Tara in existing on this side of the celluloid as we have the ability to turn off The Canyons at anytime whereas film is permanent.
Thus perhaps unintentionally Schrader’s film winds up answering the question posed by the opening credits of what killed cinema after all with the answer being misanthropic movies centered on characters we wouldn’t want to spend five minutes with in real life... as evidenced in The Canyons.
And while there's much more to discuss with regard to Schrader – warned as much as he was, unfortunately, we can't say he didn't see it coming early enough to change it for the better right from the start.
More from Paul Schrader
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