The Canyons (2013) *****
Dir. Paul Schrader
Starring: Lindsay Lohan, James Deen, Nolan Funk, Amanda Brooks, Tenille Houston, Gus Van Sant
Review By Greg Klymkiw
A movie bubbling over with scumbags is almost, on that basis alone, reason enough to see it. "Almost" is the operative word here, however, for when said movie is also obsessive and mightily endowed with a sharp eye for both the dregs of humanity and the utter emptiness of its milieu, I'm compelled to assert we're getting somewhere. Finally.
Furthermore, when the decomposing world such a film focuses its beady eyes upon is imbued with a tone of despair that's equalled only by the degrees of decay wafting from within its mucilaginous vessel, then I'm delighted to recognize we're in the much-needed presence real filmmakers. At the very least, we're accosted by a snake-oil purveyor (director Paul Schrader) and his spuriously, though convincingly ailing beard (screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis) who both oblige us with something - ANYTHING - to fill the void normally compelling us to view machine-tooled work outside their ambitious purview; an entire summer of product that's essentially been cobbled together by committees of business school dunces aimed squarely at masses of illiterate, unwashed and taste-bereft miscreants.
Oh, I know what you're thinking here: "The lady doth protest too much, methinks."
Methinks you'd be wrong.
The Canyons is, if anything, not full of fake angst to drive an otherwise useless series of attempts at saving the world. Even better, it's not engorged with the fake indie tropes of feel-goodery. It is, without question, populated with fakes (and fakery) and as such, we can be secure in the realization that there really isn't anything worth saving - especially in a world wherein every second movie protagonist is imbued with superhuman powers (and feels bad about it) or worse, movies wherein budding geeks find loser mentors they can really relate to (way, way back in the boonies, 'natch). It is, as we hear in Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick's astonishing Vietnam war picture, a "world of shit" and director Paul Schrader seems only too eager (in cahoots with Ellis, the American Psycho/Less Than Zero scribe himself) to force feed us even more faecal matter than we'd ever have imagined ingesting.
The movie is pure, unexpurgated emptiness - so much so that it's even book-ended with no mere ennui of perversion in the singular, but two - count 'em - TWO items of equal levels of emptiness to prop up all the emptiness in between. The first assails us with sad images of abandoned movie theatres and the second involves scenes of chi-chi dinner dates in trendily overpriced and vapidly upscale L.A. bistros. For me, these both seem - especially in their role as bookends to nothingness, more-than-adequate indicators of Western Civilization's collapse and in so doing, represent more than valid backdrops for drama.
Tara (Lindsay Lohan) and Christian (James Deen) are a seemingly loving young couple living the high life in Lotus Land. HE is a typical little rich boy who placates his family by being a movie producer so they actually think he does something more than, well, uh, nothing - save for endlessly schwance-dipping, ingesting booze and drugs, partying, clubbing, dining and holding swingers' mini-orgies in his mansion. SHE is his compliant partner in all things hedonistic - ready and willing to spread 'em when the delightfully-named Christian brings a variety of attractive Backpage Ad singles and couples to dive into the sack with them (whilst recording the trysts on his smart phone).
Ah, the banality of the rich and aimless.
Gina (Amanda Brooks) is an insufferably earnest filmmaker receiving financing for her pathetic straight-to-VOD movie from producer Christian. She's even bamboozled her sex-obsessed money-bags into agreeing that her marginally talented would-be actor boyfriend Ryan (Nolan Funk) can have the forgettable lead role in her forgettable movie.
Here's the rub (and tug): Tara used to boink Ryan - they were young and in love, but they were also poor. Tara dumped Ryan and promised her undying subservience to Christian. Ryan, a loser, did what losers do best. He hooked up with the marginally successful filmmaker Gina.
Christian is generally satisfied with Tara's acquiescence to his every banal sexual demand, but he does keep a bit on the side, a normally compliant vixen by the name of Cynthia (Tenille Houston) who is, unfortunately, getting a bit too demanding. I mean, Jesus! When she lets Christian bone her (and let's not forget that actor James Deen is an extremely well-endowed cocksman of the highest order - a genuine porn star stud), she gets all uppity and downright high and mighty that Christian will hide his salami in her vagina, but refuse to kiss her.
It doesn't take long for all the above to be dinking and getting dinked by each other, but also unbeknownst to each other. The spanner in the works - as we find out during his analysis sessions with psychiatrist Gus Van Sant - is that Christian is not only power-hungry, jealous and banal, but a bonafide psychopath. He also knows all too well what's going on.
Shit, as it were, is definitely going happen and believe you me, it's going to stink to High Heaven.
What I enjoyed most about this movie is that the screenplay is chockfull of melodramatic elements that are brazenly lifted from other periods of film history (50s noir and 70s existential angst grindhouse fare the clear inspirations), but none of it is played in an annoyingly cloying post-modernist fashion with tongue planted firmly in cheek. The picture is played straight-up in a contemporary setting.
If anything creeps in of a vaguely post-modern nature, The Canyons comes closest in its look to a kind of grimy throwback to Schrader's own American Gigolo (basically an extended 80s music video with lots of sex as if directed by Robert Bresson on lithium).
Lindsay Lohan is, at her core, a very fine actress. Her child star days betrayed a talent and screen presence that not only delighted millions of little girls (including my own daughter), but seemed to suggest that her best work was yet to come. Sadly, this did not happen. Hers became the typical child star life of one error in bad judgement after another - including being mismanaged into one awful movie (Labor Pains, anyone?) after another, an occasional terrific performance in movies well below her gifts (I Know Who Killed Me being a perfect example) as well as a real-life judicial witch hunt which kept landing her in hot water with the law. She shone in A Prairie Home Companion in ways that suggested things would work out for her, but was mostly and sadly relegated to small and big screen supporting roles exploiting her "freak value". (I do love Machete, but it's a coin toss as to whether she's genuinely playing a real character or exploited into playing a shadow of herself).
Recently, I enjoyed her performance as Elizabeth Taylor in the inexplicably reviled TV movie Liz and Dick. I stress "inexplicable" since what few TV movies I bother to watch are, more often than not, pretty godawful anyway. This one was kind of fun in that cheesy Hollywood biopic fashion that reminded me of the equally reviled 70s Gable and Lombard (which, yeah, was a piece of crap, but a supremely entertaining one).
In The Canyons, Lohan has a decent role and is working with a fine director. Her performance is replete with femme-fatale-gone-ass-backwards qualities (intentionally so) and she expresses the kind of pain and vulnerabilities the character would in both life and within the context of this film and Ellis's writing. It is, in fact, a very moving performance. Many of us - especially in the entertainment industry - know sad figures like Tara. Most will dismiss these exploited, messed-up boy-toys as being unworthy of even empathy, but those who do are - well, they're assholes.
Lohan invests the role with genuine emotion - it might not always jive with the emotions of blankness that audiences and, of course, pseuds (mostly the raft of know-nothings who are accepted as genuine film critics) are unused to giving credit to when its due, but she's very brave here and my heart went out - not to the Lohan who might well know or feel elements of Tara within herself and/or those she's encountered in the industry's assembly line of hangers-on, but in fact, to the character.
I also loved the rest of the cast. James Deen is perfect as someone so bereft of humanity that he is, indeed, all too human. He's kind of a Schraderian Ulrich Seidl figure. Funk, Brooks and Houston all acquit themselves perfectly within the milieu Ellis writes and that Schrader renders with his almost trademark stylish and stylized rigidity. The only cast member who feels like a bad in-joke gone worse is the weirdly phoned-in thesping of director Gus Van Sant. This approach might well have been intentional, but kind of sticks out like a sore thumb - swollen, so to speak as it's jammed up the proverbial bum.
Of course, I've yet to read any reviews (as is my wont before actually seeing movies and writing about them). I do know, however, that most film "critics" hated The Canyons. I know enough about this because of what is, in this day an age, the misplaced lazy barrage of movie marketing that foists out far too much magic-sucking information. Even more egregious, at least for my money, is knowing that a number of typically pretentious cultural gatekeepers of cinema on the film festival film programming circuit chose to reject it from inclusion within their pristine events - due, purportedly, to creative issues.
Knowing what pieces of crap many of them chose to play instead of The Canyons, allows me to sit high atop my perch of disdain for these tasteless, talentless boneheads who sickeningly see themselves as - ahem - curators.
Without even reading the notices, I can already predict the dull whiners kvetching about how the movie has no characters they like or can, in some fashion, relate to. When they do that, it just betrays what pathetically insular lives they've led and how dull and unimaginative and lacking in anything resembling the critical acumen necessary to look beyond the surface of "unpleasant" characters to discover, as the film does, the humanity pulsating beneath that which appears to be empty.
Not that she was a critic, but I still bristle when I recall the words of a cultural bureaucrat who moronically asserted that the central character of EVERY film had to be someone she wanted to have dinner with. All I could think of when I heard this is that I'd certainly enjoy having dinner with HER, but only if I could belch, regurgitate and fart all the way through our pleasant time together (and, for good measure, offer her a bowl of my regurgitate with a spoon).
I doubt many WOULD want to dine with the characters in The Canyons, but frankly, it would be their loss.
The Canyons is a picture that will obviously not be to the taste of many, but I suspect it will attract its deserved fair share of admiration from an exclusive club of those who aren't full of shit and actually know a good picture when they see it. We're the lucky ones. All the rest are the desperate, sad-eyed craps rollers who lose bigtime as they endlessly toss their dice upon a street corner sidewalk, not unlike an inebriate who might blow the bile-filled chunks emanating from an empty gullet as they hug the scum encrusted toilet bowl of a water closet situated in the sleaziest dive imaginable.
It is, I believe, called the dry heaves. They can keep 'em, thanks.
I prefer my vomit to be full-bodied.
"The Canyons" is in limited theatrical release and available on all the usual VOD and streaming formats via Mongrel Media. If you have a chance to see it on a big screen - Torontonians can do so at the TIFF Bell Lightbox - I urge you to taste your first helping out in the world, rather than at home.