by Tony Dayoub
Paul Schrader gets no respect. After considerable trouble mounting his newest film, The Canyons, detractors seem to be delighting in pointing out how shallow the film is, taking particular aim at his casting of porn star James Deen and troubled actress Lindsay Lohan as the leads. It's another instance, a la The Lone Ranger, of critics taking part in a bit of schadenfreude. Months before its release, a journalist examines a movie's troubled production history ad nauseam and the zeitgeist signals rough times ahead for said film. But those looking only for evidence to support their pre-conceptions are missing or willfully ignoring the underlying tension Schrader explores in The Canyons, an elegy for traditional cinema and its filmmakers in the advent of fractured world of digital moviemaking.
Shots of abandoned movie theaters are strewn throughout The Canyons, an ironic lamentation considering the movie's subject matter and the concessions Schrader was forced to make in order to film it. Deen plays Christian, a spoiled rich boy producing a low-budget slasher film he can barely muster interest for. A puffy-faced Lohan plays Tara, a failed starlet willing to debase herself in Christian's sexual games because he can support her financially. The other players are fresh-faced Ryan (Nolan Funk), a struggling actor Tara convinced Christian to cast in his film, and Ryan's girlfriend Gina (Amanda Brooks), who is fairly open about doing whatever it takes to get the film made and start her career as a Hollywood producer.
Unlike other directors of his generation—like Francis Coppola, Brian De Palma, and of course, George Lucas—who have embraced the new, more confusing territory that must be travelled in order to make a movie today, one senses Schrader's discomfort with digital filmmaking, Kickstarter financing, etc. Ryan's climb up the LA social and business ladder is driven (and hindered) by the usual hustle and outdated modes of kissing up to his superiors. His naiveté is characterized by his notions of monogamy; he once dated Tara and insists she leave Christian for him. Christian isn't constrained by any observable morality, willing to engage in manipulative, multi-partner sex games in order to control Tara. He knows of no other way to maintain his primacy than to buy the assistance of others, a quality that becomes particularly useful when he feels he's losing Tara to Ryan. Once Schrader lets us observe Christian and Tara's sexual brinksmanship, the way the stone-faced Christian enjoys shooting their foursomes on his cell phone, the comparison becomes clearer. The robotic Christian is the digital to Ryan's throwback analog.
The usual accusations of style over substance that have dogged Schrader since the days of the underrated American Gigolo (arguably a stylistic inspiration for 1983's Scarface and Michael Mann's crime films) resonate even louder here thanks to the involvement of author Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho) who wrote The Canyons and more fittingly resembles the target being described by naysayers. People seem to forget Schrader was once a film critic himself and penned screenplays for some of Martin Scorsese's most disturbing and finest films about obsessive loners: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ. If anything feels trite in The Canyons it's Ellis' flat dialogue, and his insistence on casting the blank Deen in the lead.
Cold and slick, full of the reflective surfaces and synthesized music that pervades much of Schrader's work, The Canyons isn't necessarily helped by the stunt casting of Deen and Lohan. The vapid Deen's go-to reaction can best be described as a sort of annoyed insouciance. The casting of ex-child actress Lohan, however, works to The Canyons' benefit. "Do you like movies?" she asks Gina at one point, and it's as if Schrader is using Lohan, a talent virtually destroyed by the current Hollywood, as his mouthpiece. Lohan's surgically swollen face lends poignancy to Tara's circumstances as she flails to maintain some sort of buoyancy in the treacherous waters of a callous industry that's probably done with her for good. With Tara and, to a lesser extent Ryan, Schrader applies his trademark polished surfaces to reflect and refract the trouble he himself has had staying relevant in this age of DIY film financing and production. It's Schrader's mastery of the visuals and working with what he's given that salvages the mediocre Ellis script he had to work with, turning The Canyons from a potential so-bad-it's-good joke into a cruel cautionary tale on the impending extinction of innovative artists in 21st century Hollywood.