Paul Schrader’s low-budget L.A. soap-noir The Canyons opens on images of dead and forgotten movie theatres, an apt tone-setter for this dour tale of betrayal and obsession on the margins of the largely shuttered-up dream factories.
Written by the Gen-X scribe Bret Easton Ellis (Less Than Zero, American Psycho), Schrader’s movie is even bleaker for being about twentysomethings, a generation the film suggests has abandoned its hopes even before it’s had a chance to be disappointed by them. In this world and this movie, cynicism is a given.
Tara (Lindsay Lohan), is the girlfriend of the trust-fund movie financier Christian (the real-life porn star James Deen), a calculating dirtbag who suspects her of messing about with Ryan (Nolan Gerard Funk), the struggling young actor he’s just cast in a crappy teen horror movie about to be shot in New Mexico. Not accustomed to not getting his way (which includes inviting Internet-lassoed strangers to join him and Tara for cellphone-videoed sex), Christian makes like a classical film noir cuckold, having Tara followed, tracked, hacked and harassed. Because she’s already something less than stable – it’s obvious Schrader’s casting of the notoriously disaster-prone Lohan was hardly whimsical – Christian’s surveillance drives the woman to the brink of paranoia, if that’s what you can call it when she has a fling with the lovestruck young actor. It leads to an inevitable act of violence in the Hollywood Hills, the foreordained fulfilment of all those broken-down movie houses we saw at the beginning.
While some have suggested Lohan’s casting as a prematurely washed-up ingenue is a publicity stunt on Schrader’s part, her ongoing off-screen troubles inform the character of Tara quite smartly: Part of it’s in the slightly beat-up appearance of the substance-prone actor – whose is usually wearing more makeup than even Joan Crawford dared – but mostly it’s in Tara’s utterly palpable instability. When Lohan loses it and cries, as she often does in The Canyons, the line between performer and persona all but disappears.
Although playing out at a considerable generational remove from the 67-year-old director, the world of The Canyons is vintage Schrader, and one wouldn’t be surprised to see American Gigolo’s Richard Gere or Light Sleeper’s Willem Dafoe sitting disconsolately in the corner one the many cafés or bars these hyper-texting, dead-end kids frequent. Even the style is consistent with this most Euro art movie-fixated of American directors: Conversations are often delivered straight to camera à la Yasujiro Ozu, inserts on gestures and body parts are a nod to Robert Bresson, and the entire climate of depopulated urban limbo suggests Antonioni on Sunset Boulevard. The only conspicuously fresh trope is a recurring tracking shot that follows characters ominously around corners: a David Lynch move from the similarly haunted Hollywood movie Lost Highway.
Something of a minor prerelease tabloid sensation for its tales of clashes between Schrader and Lohan and the rumours of explicit sex scenes – not to mention Schrader’s obliging direction of Lohan’s brief nude scenes while naked himself – The Canyons is actually anything but gratuitously sensational. On the contrary, it’s rather restrained, even conservative affair, far more interested in expositional conversation and a sustained tone of bleached-out melancholy than cranking up the heat. Even the movie’s single act of violence takes place onscreen, and all the full frontal action is, if you’ll forgive the term, inescapably limp.
As an end-of-world setting for soulless drifting, L.A. and Hollywood have been enlisted ever since Nathanael West wrote the harrowing The Day of the Locust in 1939, and it’s come in for regular disregard ever since: Sunset Boulevard, Chinatown, The Player. But while there may be nothing new under that smog-enshrouded Pacific sun, and as difficult as it is to be alarmed to learn that the movie business is a haven for narcissists, criminals, pornographers and murderers, there’s no denying that, for Paul Schrader anyway, it feels something like home.