The film centers on Christian (Deen), a trust fund baby dabbling in the world of independent film production, and his girlfriend Tara (Lohan), who lives off the fat of the land. In the film’s opening scene, Tara and Christian dine with another couple, Gina (Amanda Brooks), Christian’s assistant and the director of the latest flick he’s producing, and Ryan (Nolan Funk), the freshly cast lead in Gina and Christian’s film.
Throughout The Canyons, we watch these four roll into and out of each other’s lives over the course of a few days. We learn of a previous, hidden relationship between Tara and Ryan. We learn of Christian’s obsessive jealousy. We watch Tara and Christian frequently fuck people they’ve met online, for no other reason than Why Not. We watch and learn many things, all with exceedingly less interest. As the story developed, I became increasing unconcerned in what was happening or why. Blame the script, the actors, or the director (or all three); for whatever reason, The Canyons is never fully engaging.
Naturalism is the vibe here. That’s what every performer in The Canyons is trying to achieve. Truth. Reality. A lacking showmanship. Acting without acting. With the exception of Amanda Brooks (who is genuinely fantastic throughout), and Nolan Funk (who is inarguably awful throughout), every actor in this film delivers a wildly uneven performance. All achieve rare, strong moments that are drowned out by laughable acting choices.
I’m one of those people who want Lindsay Lohan to succeed. With every new performance, I hope that this will be her chance to excel. If she had a shot at a comeback, The Canyons surely was it. Sadly, I’m forced to label it as a general misfire. Twice toward the end of the film, Tara is confronted by Christian, once with physical viciousness, the other with emotional intimidation. Lohan nails these scenes. She presents a scared shitless little girl void of direction and choice. And rather than harping on all of the things Lohan gets wrong as Tara, it’s kindest to say that these are two brief scenes she gets absolutely right.
As written, James Deen’s Christian is a quintessential Bret Easton Ellis character. Morose, insipid, selfish – a despicably entitled, carelessly wealthy Alpha male. Christian has all the makings of an exceptional Ellis character – the Patrick and Sean Bateman’s, the Clay and Julian’s, the Victor Ward’s, and so on. Problem is, James Deen is no Christian Bale. Hell, he’s not even James Van Der Beek. He’s a guy playing it cool who is so obviously playing it cool. Deen’s work is purposefully unflashy, restrained to a fault. His moments of conflicted silence, however, are flawless. Deen is in command of a menacing gaze that forced me to think, “Oh, wow, where has this guy been?” Delivery of dialogue and subtlety of movement is where he fails. His words are too stilted. His mannerisms are too theatrical. He delivers the simple, dismissive put down of, “Is this guy for real?” with the poise of a frat boy, and executes the act of zipping up a hoodie with the grace of a, well, porn star.
A few hints of redemption. Cinematographer John DeFazio does digital wonders with his Alexa Pro camera, making The Canyons look like it’s far more than a quarter million dollar picture. Brendan Canning’s music (with help from Me&John and a handful of electronica artists) is mostly on point as well. Eerie, leading, but never forced. And, as mentioned, Amanda Brooks deserves to stand out among the rest of the cast. She’s a star.
Perhaps my expectations for The Canyons were unreasonable. Perhaps my appreciation for Ellis’ novels and Schrader’s films blinded my judgment. With a movie as high profiled as The Canyons, everyone was bound to form an opinion before we had all of the context. And now here I sit, context fully discovered, opinion fully realized. I sit here as a self admitted fan who was ultimately let down. I give Schrader, Ellis, Lohan and Deen endless credit for trying something wholly different, and promoting it so boldly. Although The Canyons is a failed experiment, if Schrader, Ellis and Pope announced tomorrow that they were beginning pre-production on an entirely new project, you can bet I would be eagerly rooting for it to succeed. D