It’s funny timing, me running a piece last night in which I responded to the accusations by the filmmakers behind “The Lone Ranger” that critics pre-write their reviews of films. I think those guys are doing damage control, playing a shell game of sorts by saying what they said, but the truth is that certain films do make their first appearance already bloodied, targets painted on their backs in vivid red, and there is no doubt that Paul Schrader’s “The Canyons” is one of those films.
The opening credits of the film have a haunting quality that I hoped the film as a whole would possess, stationary shots of abandoned theaters, movie palaces that have been left to the elements. But from scene one, there is a dissonance between Paul Schrader’s visual work with photographer John DeFazio and the quality of the performances, and I have to confess, the entire thing just made me sad.
I think Lindsay Lohan has genuinely lost whatever handle she once had on character work, and every single line out of her sounds like she is waiting for a cue, like she’s reciting lines that were written. Nothing sounds natural. I can’t get over the strange worn quality of her skin and her wax figure features, caught mid-melt, and watching her try to play intimacy and pain and human behavior of any kind is like watching an alien try to pretend to be a person based only on something they read. I don’t believe that she’s ever really lived any of this, that she’s ever had this kind of adult relationship, and it feels like play-acting. Part of it is this strange staccato way she spits dialogue out, and part of it is the shaky chihuahua emotional raw nerve thing that seems to flip on and off like a light switch. And I’ll admit… thanks to the way Lohan has become famous as herself instead of as a performer makes it hard to believe her when she talks about the years of struggling and being poor and not being able to make it as an actor.
I wish I understood what Bret Easton Ellis still sees in this sort of “rich people with too many drugs and too much sex are miserable and sad” thing. It bordered on self-parody the first time around in the ’80s, and at this point, if this is still the only thing that Ellis has to say about people, it strikes me as dull more than anything. It’s certainly not shocking or outrageous at this point. Casting Deen in a dramatic lead seems like a perfect excuse for Schrader to dig into the finer details of a decadent life, but more than anything, Deen’s work here made me appreciate just how much Richard Gere was actually doing in “American Gigolo.” Part of the problem is the character as written, and part of it is Deen himself. Considering how many profiles have been written about how personable and charming Deen is, none of that comes through in the work he does here. I have no doubt that Ellis looks at this performance and loves it precisely because it is a kind of plastic LA scumbag that I recognize as real, but considering how long Ellis has been writing about these types, I expect something more at this point. This is as much of an artistic stutter as Hollywood studios doing superhero origin stories. What’s left to say? What additional insight does “The Canyons” offer beyond what Ellis and Schrader have said before?
Part of what Ellis hammers in the dialogue here is that movies are dead, and that seems to me to be a reflexively easy stance right now. The particular corners of the industry that we see in this film are gross and unpleasant, pure exploitation, and it feels like practiced cynicism. I may grouse sometimes about certain realities of the industry these days, but in the end, any complaint I ever make is about the same thing: I love movies, and I want this industry to be healthy and daring and the best possible version of itself. If I found the entire industry as repulsive as “The Canyons” does, I would bail out of LA and never look back.
Ellis isn’t the one I feel bad for in this equation. Schrader is the guy who I feel like loses in this situation. He’s the one whose filmography I consider genuinely significant. I look at the early work he wrote, like “Rolling Thunder” or “Taxi Driver” or “The Yakuza” or “Hardcore,” and that’s a guy who seemed to love exploring different American voices, who was fascinated and horrified by the way darkness could manifest in anyone’s life, and who also seemed attuned to the struggles between spirit and flesh that take place in all of us every day. The films he’s been part of over the years are a genuinely amazing list. “Raging Bull.” “Old Boyfriends.” “Blue Collar.” “Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters.” “The Mosquito Coast.” “The Last Temptation of Christ.” “Affliction.” “Light Sleeper.” “Auto Focus.” He’s forgotten more about honest human behavior than Ellis has learned in his entire privileged pampered phony life, and more than anything, this feels to me like a guy who should be revered but who has found himself shoved off to the margins of the industry, doing whatever he can to register again in a larger pop culture sense, and it bothers me. It bothers me because he’s better than this material, and this is where we are now. Guys like Schrader are hitching their wagons to the paparazzi freakshow of a Lohan to get a moment of relevance, while directors like Spike Lee are sent to Kickstarter, hat in hand, because the international financing system doesn’t have room for them.
It took me three tries to make it through “The Canyons,” and I wonder if Ellis actually buys any of this, if he really buys the pose he’s been striking for all of these years. If this is what it looks like when Lohan gives a film everything she’s got at this point, then I can’t imagine there’s a major artistic rebound ahead for her. The one thing the film seems to get completely right is the way people are starting to vanish into their phones, unable to carry on normal human conversations anymore, but just watching someone exhibit a recognizable asshole characteristic does not make “The Canyons” insightful or interesting. For all the talk during production about how they had to make this film independently because of how daring it is, it strikes me as more predictable and boring than even the most formulaic big summer movies. Let it be known that the studios do not have exclusive ownership of the ability to pump out hollow crap that exists solely for the sake of hype, because “The Canyons” embodies the worst of what gets made at any budget, on any subject.
“The Canyons” is available on VOD now and in select theaters.