Paul Schrader opens his micro-budget L.A. sex noir The Canyons with lingering shots of a ruined movie theater, boarded up and dead, the spirits of cinema having plainly departed. Given that it has no connection to anything in the film, it must be a metaphor; and if it’s a metaphor, then for what? Modern Hollywood? The movie we’re about to see? The Canyons isn’t just bad, it’s rank — and it takes a peculiar sort of integrity to denude the frame of life to the point where it smells to heaven. The author of a brilliant study of Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer called Transcendental Style in Film, Schrader has perfected a style that is miserably un-transcendent.
He has help from a script by Bret Easton Ellis that centers on the decadent trust-funder Christian (James Deen); his live-in girlfriend, Tara (Lindsay Lohan); and the beefcake actor Ryan (Nolan Funk), who has just won the lead in a slasher picture that Christian aims to bankroll. What Christian doesn’t know is that Ryan — who lives with Christian’s pretty assistant, Gina (Amanda Brooks) — used to date Tara and is once more porking her. You wouldn’t think Christian would mind that much. In the opening scene, in which the four principal characters meet for dinner, he boasts of trolling the Internet for other sex partners. Several times a week, men and women show up at his modernist house in the hills above the Pacific, shrug off their clothes, and go at it (sans preamble) with either him or Tara or both. But Christian doesn’t just want to live with this magnetic sex kitten; he wants to control her, direct her, possess her. The suspicion that she has a life elsewhere makes him seethe.
Schrader and Ellis are a perfect mismatch. Ellis’s spoiled zombies would only come to life with a warmer, more indulgent director, whereas Schrader’s coolly swank, judgmental gaze is better when it falls on characters with looser tongues. They bring out the anti-humanist in each other — and the amateur. The Canyons has the vibe of an eighties hardcore porn movie. In between scenes in which Deen shows off his peen and Lohan her melons, the characters lie to one another and lie about their lies, and drive around a sparsely populated L.A. to an unvarying synthesizer wash and thump. The actors suit their ridiculous names: James Deen (actually a porn star), Nolan Funk, Lindsay Lohan.
Well, Lohan’s name is not inherently absurd — it has just become synonymous with vapidness and waste. Actors often refer to their bodies as their “instruments” and Lohan has not kept hers tuned. I don’t just mean physically, although she looks — in her late twenties — as if she’s pushing 40. In her prime, she was radiantly centered, that husky, cracked voice making her seem smarter and funnier than a young actress had any right to be. She was all there. You can still see the shreds of her talent, but she’s distracted. You catch her telegraphing anxiety instead of looking anxious, as if her director were feeding her the character’s reactions off-camera.
Off-putting as it is, The Canyons is not inept. I think Schrader was alienated from the characters, the actors, the whole experience, and made sure to alienate us, too. His lack of affect is, in its way, expressive. What it isn’t is profound.