Dyspeptic and sleazy and often as thick-headed as the selfish, solipsistic assholes around which its languid narrative unfurls, Paul Schrader’s The Canyons presents an unprecedented and unmitigated perspective on Hollywood’s toxic affluence, as judgmental as it is enamored of the iniquitous lives it depicts. It is a mess, certainly, but a fascinating, sometimes brilliant one, and necessary—a bizarre coalescence of influences and talents representative of and germane to the obsessions of its progenitors. Directed by Schrader and written by Bret Easton Ellis, the film has at its core a generational dichotomy, an insider’s sense of debasement filmed with a surveyor's inquisitiveness. (Few are as deft as Ellis at disemboweling the bilious lives of the Hollywood elite.) This tension between artists pervades the film, imbues the stylized pseudo-realism with a surreal specificity, as well as an artificial vagueness. In its indulgences, its visual garishness, the gimmicky casting and inane dialogue (Ellis seems unaware of, or unconcerned with, how real people speak, but these people barely qualify as human anyway), it excavates unseemly truths about the upper class, about the entertainment industry and its corrosive effects on the lives of the naively ambitious. It is the essential post-modern, post-theatrical, post-social media film, a lugubrious and leisurely-paced depiction of injudicious decisions free of consequence, duplicitous stratagems, and general human awfulness. It has an insalubrious allure, and slowly lures you in, as if beckoning with a coke-dusted finger.
Schrader delves, with contempt and befuddled fascination, into this world, and conjures a sun-soaked nightmare of egotism and carnal perfidy. He’s ventured into this realm before—his American Gigolo, an obvious inspiration for this film, similar probes the dark heart of success and sex. And the line “Strange how things work out,” intoned here without much emoting, appears almost verbatim in the great Light Sleeper, which Schrader himself penned, and which follows a middling, sobered-up drug courier, played by Willem Dafoe. That film, like this one, is concerned with the deflation of dreams, the renewal of life; it is, however, a much more optimistic film, one in which things do, in their own way, work out, and one gets the sense that Schrader is repeating himself because he no longer knows what he believes in. Or perhaps Ellis is imitating Schrader, who in turn took inspiration from himself. The Canyons is neither a wholly Schrader film nor an Ellis film: it is an exquisite corpse.
The film opens with static, assiduously composed shots of dilapidated buildings, derelict and forgotten, as sad and lonely as abandoned ambitions, while the credits adorn the screen and a synth score thrums. Schrader has always had an impeccable ability to use location to extrapolate ideas and develop characters, from the squalid and tenebrous New York of Taxi Driver reflecting the maelstrom of anger churning within Travis Bickle to the whirring machineries and wood-hued dive bars of a corrupt factory town in his directorial debut Blue Collar and the snowy insular small town of Affliction. (He began his career, of course, as a critic, and that critical astuteness propels much of his work, but he also has something of a journalist’s eye.) Here, he show the ruins and poverty that lie just beyond the scope of the central characters’ periphery, the buildings evocative of the kind of despondency from which so many aspiring young for actors run, and to which so many failed young actors are relegated when they’ve finally given up on their dreams. When he moves into the Hills, where the rich and fake proliferate like bugs skulking in the crevices, he eschews reality and basks in the artificiality of manufactured lives. It is not too far removed from the variegated dream-sets of Mishima. Though there is a narrative and characters, the film is, from these opening moments, more concerned with the sights of moneyed vacuity—skinny youngish things sauntering around Hollywood acting as if the world owes them, these pretty husks who are dumber than their smartphones, who snort and fuck and cheat and deceive, mendacious monsters in designer underwear. Watch a pair of bare pallid legs, calves plumped by heels, step across a bedroom; admire the sleek, lean torso, well-toned and lissome, of a C-grade movie producer and porn aficionado. A bump of cocaine is done from the webbing of a hand, and undergarments are strewn around a room in a gleaming glass room in a beautiful house ensconced in the Malibu hills. See these sights and feel resentment, and jealousy, percolate.
The story concerns Christian (porn star James Deen), a lecherous and licentious producer, who, when we meet him, is pontificating on love and sex, expounding gratuitously and unrepentantly while his girlfriend, Tara (Lindsay Lohan), sits appalled beside him in a fancy restaurant. He’s talking to one of those young aspiring actors (Nolan Funk), who happens to be Tara’s former boyfriend. He’s naive, kind, and Hollywood will ruin him. Christian, the kind of guy who wears his dress shirt with three buttons undone, considers himself smart because he uses the word “assignation.” He uses words the way he uses people, without considering their meaning or the consequences. These are parasitic creatures, entitled and idiotic, so narcissistic even their sex feels cold. (Ellis has called the film “cold and dead,” because it is about cold and dead characters.) The Canyons is salacious but unsexy, an erotic film that turns you off. Characters are demarcated by who they fuck, by who they want to fuck, by who they fuck over; they are devoid of any semblance of morals or psychology, and this interior vacuity is, again, part of the film’s epochal allure. As Phil Coldiron says in an essential Cinema Scope article from 2013, “Given the centrality of sex to its social structure, it’s only natural that everyone in The Canyons’ constellation is connected coitally…” Christian is a man defined by his lasciviousness. Putting Deen in the lead may have been a chicanerous bit of novelty casting, but his insipid, cold presence is inextricable from the film’s power. He possesses little acting prowess but a prodigious cock (and one is invariably aware of Deen’s award-winning appendage, even if it never graces the screen; one waits for its emergence, not unlike waiting for Orson Welles’s appearance as Harry Lime), and his stiff delivery of awkward lines lends the film the amateur air of a porn. Really, what’s the difference between a porn and an indie film funded on Kickstarter? (The film, produced by Braxton Pope, raised $159,015 with a goal of $100,000.) Deen seems like the kind of guy who thinks size is all that matters, a man who jettisons intimacy because he has nine inches to offer.
Deen, like Lohan, has lived most of his private life publicly, and one cannot watch The Canyons and not be aware of both actors’ well-publicized problems. He has appeared in over 1,400 hardcore and softcore films, yet he seems completely apathetic here, almost bored, uninterested in doing what he was hired to do (which is, purportedly, to act), and one waits for that boredom to give way to something bacchanalian—for Deen to whip it out and get to work doing what he does best. He looks as if he may start fucking at any given moment, yet he is, in a way, emasculated here, denied the chance to give the kind of performance to which he is accustomed, forced to act like an actual actor. It is, in a way, one of the most honest performances of recent American cinema.
The main star, though, is Lohan, who once had the natural effervescence of a classic Hollywood star, and the curvaceous beauty of a young Elizabeth Taylor (whom she played, quite poorly, in Liz & Dick in 2012), but who now has a sallow appearance. She looks like the ghost of a vixen traipsing through a world of starfuckers. But she brings to the film something more poignant than a performance: she brings an earnest presence. A tragic air enfolds her, something unfeigned, a bevy of demons lurking behind her eyes. She still has an innate appeal, a dulled glamour that nonetheless beguiles, and one struggles to look away from her. The way one waits for Deen to fuck, one waits for Lohan to breakdown, and these preconceived ideas, these assumptions based on precedent and personas, are part of the film’s brilliance. Compare Deen’s stultification with Nolan Funk’s blankness, his utter lack of irony. Funk has the naive earnestness of an aspiring actor, pitted against the egotistical Deen and the burned-out radiance of Lohan. She knows what it’s like to become big, and how hard one falls from the apogee of stardom. No one seems to be communicating here. There is absolutely no chemistry between anyone: it’s a roulette of isolated performances.
The lack of chemistry extends to the formal aspects of the film. The Canyons looks and sounds unlike anything else in Schrader’s oeuvre, or anything else made by anyone else this decade. Shot by John Defazio, a mixed media and glitch artist whose most notable previous film credit was Joe Dante’s 2009 online horror series Splatter, the film has a neo-porn haziness, unequivocally digital and low budget, an imperfect aesthetic that is at once incredibly amateur yet avant-garde bizarre, with its digital hotspots and strange contrasts. It looks wrong, rife with mistakes—and it feels so right. (Compare the film’s enthrallingly farrago aesthetic with the classical precision of Schrader’s First Reformed, for example, a film of incredible control and restraint.) With Brendan Canning's pulsating ’80s-aping score as an aural consort to Defazio’s digital photography, The Canyons seems torn from time, at once intimately in touch with an epoch and location yet confused as to when, exactly, it takes place. As with Defazio’s art, there is a gallimaufry quality to the film, a potpourri of aesthetics and ideas that feel forced together, a cinematic collage of artists doing their own thing. It all clashes in a spectacular, phantasmagorical way. Akin to how the characters think only of themselves, the film’s bevy of contributors all seem out of touch with each other.
The Canyons was plagued by problems from its inception, and a much-read and oft-cited New York Times Magazine article made the then-unreleased film sound like a disaster, which undoubtedly colored moviegoers’ views before anyone actually saw it. The film’s production life was as public as the lives of its two leads. “Nobody has a private life anymore,” Christian quips, and this was the case with The Canyons, a film produced before the public eye. No one got along on set, and it was, by most accounts, an unpleasant and arduous production. It was a film made by irrelevant iconoclasts and fasting stars; only Deen had any clout at the time of the film’s production. Schrader hadn’t made a noteworthy film in years, Ellis’s American Psycho was over 20 years old and he was, by then, known for his tendentious social media presence, and Lohan was, then and now, the epitome of a wreck. Yet somehow, inexplicably (or perhaps it all makes complete sense?), these three on-the-wane entertainers and the porn star came together to make one of the decade’s vital films, an exegesis on transparency and narcissism. Strange how things work out.