The Canyons review

The opening of The Canyons is a roll call of deceased cinemas, static shots of faded picture palace exteriors and interiors in various stages of decrepitude. It’s quite a potent sequence for those of us that adore the cinematic art form, and for whom these places are something akin to churches.

But the film presents no real evidence that director Paul Schrader and screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis are necessarily mourning these cinemas’ loss. The Canyons is about the here and now, Hollywood and celebrity culture as it is, not as it once was.

And so the film opens with that rather blunt introduction. It’s actually one of the more effective metaphors in a film that layers them on, one over the over, piling on textual and sub-textual ideas that never quite coalesce into anything meaningful.

Whilst the marketing and hullabaloo surrounding the film may suggest that the central character in the film is Tara, as played by Lindsay Lohan, the focus of the story is often as much on her boyfriend Christian, James Deen. Christian is a controlling, over-sexed trust fund kid in a state of arrested development. It’s probably not a coincidence that Ellis gave his character the same forename as the male lead in Fifty Shades of Grey.

Christian’s relationship with the somewhat unstable Tara seems to be toxic from the outset, and is mostly to do with his ability and will to dominate her both emotionally and sexually. Her character is somewhat interesting, particularly in respect of her complicity in how she’s being treated. Unfortunately, a particularly pointed conversation later in the film squanders any exploration of Tara’s character and just makes a few explicit statements in the text, laying it all out flatly on the surface.

It’s actually rather astounding that the part of Tara wasn’t written especially for Lohan, given how well the character carries the baggage this casting brings.

The relationship between Christian and Tara ultimately begins to collapse when she takes control in the bedroom. It’s after this that the story heads off into a very silly noirish murder plot and loses its way. The film certainly demonstrates no good reason for the gear change.

We see Christian confess to his shrink, who is played by director Gus Van Sant – of course – that he doesn’t like losing his control. He dislikes being an “actor” and prefers to be the “director”. That sound you can hear is the blunt hammer of metaphor smashing another on-the-nose piece of dialogue.

But the film’s swirl of Hollywood/celebrity/porn/sex/gender metaphors can be pleasurable, and do add something to what would otherwise be something of a slog. Even still, the pleasures are small and they certainly won’t leave you questioning your world in any new way.

It’s Schrader’s direction and the performances of the two leads drag that have done the most to drag the material down. There’s an extreme staginess and the actors are regularly very wooden, with Deen unable to shake an acting style ingrained from years of acting in pornography. Perhaps his and Lohan’s blankness were somewhat intentional, as this would certainly align with many of Ellis’ previous characters, those he has written about far more successfully in his novels.

The Canyons often feels very much like a disaster but it’s still a far more interesting failure than many. The film has taken almost a year to reach UK cinemas, following a ‘day and date’ release via American cinemas and VOD. Schrader stated around the US release that the film was made deliberately to go “straight-to-video,” and many in the UK will have already imported the film, or even downloaded it illegally.

Which is a shame. While the film is very weak in many respects, it’s still an intriguing oddity. Still, I expect this belated UK release will see those empty cinemas in The Canyons‘ opening scenes mirrored in real life.

If you feel like proving me wrong, The Canyons is out in some UK cinemas now. Find Any Film should be able to help you find your nearest screening.