RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 15: Paul Schrader’s “The Canyons” (2013)


The Players…

Lindsay Lohan, James Deen, Nolan Funk, Amanda Brookes, Tenille Houston and Gus Van Sant.

The Story…

Trust fund doosh Christian figures himself a burgeoning movie producer. That counts if you consider soft-core porn YouTube and FaceBook feeds makes you a movie mogul. But behind his scenes Christian’s fragile failing actress girlfriend, Tara, hides an affair. Her tryst might be an opportunity to get out from Christian’s sleaze, but a chance meeting thrusts them all into a violent, sexually charged tour through the darker side of basal human nature. It’s not as cool as it all sounds, believe you me.

The Rant…

I have a confession to make.

I’m willing to wager that a lot of other guys might have a similar confession. Years ago, at least by a decade, and before she was druggy, snatchy and scraping a rusting career down to the metal, I had a crush on Lindsay Lohan. Back before the crash-and-burn that became her career’s swamp, she was hot, funny and charismatic. She was the It-Girl at the turn of the century. She also had natural comedic talent in the best way imaginable, organic and malleable. We all know about Mean Girls and the remake of Freaky Friday; pairing her against Jaime Lee Curtis was a stitch. And like Curtis, Lohan cut her teeth as a Screen Teen, growing up in front of the lens and whose every action was scrutinized with baited breath. By the way, she was hot.

Now I know the need to stretch yourself as an actor, to try challenging roles, test rougher waters. Lohan was a teen actress and former Disney darling (she starred in three Disney remakes, before God). If there is any evidence in Miley Cyrus’ post Hannah Montana career, then Lohan is one of a neverending string of Screen Teens that want so desperately shed their kiddie label, they’d take perhaps a premature plunge into the world of post-PG13. A tricky turn to take, and it often results in failure. For example, despite his promising start, Edward Furlong comes immediately to mind regarding career flameout. Shia LeBeouf ain’t doing so well either. To my immediate memory the only former Screen Teen that bucked the trend was Jodie Foster, playing nymphet Iris in Taxi Driver at age 12. Two Oscar wins later and well you get it.

Waitaminnit, didn’t she star in the original Freaky Friday? Hmmm.

The trouble with taking said plunge is that often the audience doesn’t want to go along for a swim. Would a Mean Girls 2 clean up at the box office? Maybe. Maybe even a Freakier Friday. But as she grew up, Lohan wanted to try her hand at more “serious” movies. Like I said, you gotta stretch yourself. The problem is you also have to be convincing, and take leap of faith that the audience will follow you young actor you along a different route, as if age is notwithstanding. It worked for comical Jim Carrey (once in a while), and on the other hand, brooding Robert de Niro (again, once in a while). For some odd reason, which I can only attribute to bad press surrounding even worse off-screen behavior on Lindsay’s part, her grown up roles were not very successful and followed the damning rules of diminishing returns like clockwork. How do you go from being a part of an ensemble cast in a Robert Altman film (A Prairie Home Companion) to a wretched attempt at American giallo (I Know Who Killed Me)? My take? Too many unadulterated street drugs and impatience.

Lohan should’ve fired her agent years before the crackpipe burned low. You can’t shoehorn yourself as a former child star into flawed “serious” roles and expect to taken seriously without a cocked brow. Looks like no one told LiLo this, and her later films—like The Canyons—illustrate her grinding against her once effortlessly charming side with her needs to be taken seriously. You can’t be taken seriously as an actor if you just dump yourself out of your element for the sake of that. Well, that and taking on lousy scripts ain’t much of a sound investment either.


Hollywood is a plastic town. No one disputes that. It’s very being rests on creating fantasy worlds populated by liars portraying imaginary lives for an unseen admiring public. It’s all glitz and glamour, drugs and squalor, fake reality and conspicuous consumption. Money has a lot to with Hollywood’s being also.

Apart from all those underpinnings, Tinsel Town rides along on making movies. That’s where the cash is. It’s a town that rides on spectacle, the literal sense of the word: to be watched. Everyone’s an actor, everybody’s on a stage, everyone’s performing some song and dance. Makes for an endless melodrama with all the twists and turns of reality to take in. And get warped.

Take Christian (Deen) for example. He’s got the latest thing. Tapping into the endless promise of social media, he can crank out “movies” for the gullible public on his smartphone, readily available and always rife with the possibility of going viral. He can be the next Scorsese with enough likes. Besides, he’s gotta have a spine unto which his trust fund bucks have to hang. He also needs a gimmick, a solid one beyond pixels.

He and Tara (Lohan) haven’t been with each other long, but long enough to reach a tenuous agreement. He provides the luxury, she provides the money shots. All that’s missing is the white lines and a domain name. One night after drinks and dinner with Christian’s latest prospects Ryan (Funk) and Gina (not Wagnall’s), the usual nighttime T&A session goes a little left of center.

Turns out Tara has a bit of history with Ryan, a glimmer of a possibly better life that would have garnered security and perhaps the all elusive love rather than sucking miles of c*ck in the name of a really nifty address, both online and on the block. But Christian is the jealous, possessive type. He’ll share Tara’s bush with total strangers so long as it ends in profit, as long it won’t result in an actual healthy shine at a relationship, hand to God.

Their’s is all spectacle. This is the plastic town of Hollywood. Relationships don’t actually exist beyond the coupled hands at the premier, and even wasted Tara knows this. So what’s this proto-fluffer gonna do to get back towards the straight and narrow with a guy like Ryan? After all, Christian’s not exactly the most even-keeled yacht in the bay, especially since he’s easily tempted by any female other than Tara.

Sigh. Just another chapter in the novel that is Hollywierd. Next!…

Whoa nelly. I bet most of you smelled The Canyons light-years before you ever heard about it. The flick fell so hard under The Standard on all fronts you’re probably wondering what took me so long to get to it. Patience, friends. Patience. Here’s a super low budget movie that still managed to be a loss leader at the box office, even after skimping out on craft services (I think. I mean, everyone in the movie seemed way too skinny to me). I heard that Schrader more or less made this movie on a bet regarding the budget.After seeing the thing I’m not sure if Schrader won or lost. The Canyons is looow budget all right, right down to the DV camera work (maybe a parallel with the making movies on phones?). The working budget was around $250,000 and the movie grossed only $59,000 and some change. That’s including DVD sales. Ouch.

I think this movie died based mostly on negative press; it kept people away. After watching it once (only once this time!), I’m not entirely sure what the flap was about with The Canyons. It does have a lame plot, sure, and the acting is wooden, but was it all on purpose? It’s hard to tell, but I’m willing to wager that The Canyons is a very self-aware movie. Everything is superficial, but was it deliberate? The movie semi-revolves around acting and making movies, after all, and what else is based so much on style first, substance second than making movies? The flash of a movie is what gets your attention in the first place. This movie is not engaging, but itseemingly doesn’t try to be. It’s all plastic, as well as somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

I credit this to the script. Bret Easton Ellis was…is known for being an 80s writer in every sense of the term: slick, winking and tapping into the cultural zeitgeist without shame. That and a lot of lines of blow being snorted. Since this movie indeed seems so plastic, what better way to illustrate the transparency of movie making than an expert chronicler of the superficial and fleeting? The Canyons is all about putting on faces, on denying accountability and how cheap and hollow relationships can be. It’s an 80s movie for the 10s. It’s got a feeling similar to Refn’s Drive (a review of that is kicking around here at RIORI somewhere), another film about gloss, movies and hostility. The Canyons is a rather ugly film and transparent film, and doesn’t try to hide it.

Despite all that ugliness, there were a few high points. There always as to be a few, right? Right? Whew. Thought I was losing it there for a minute. Fo’ instance, I really liked the opening montage of all the burnt out movie theaters. It really sets the stage, as all good montages do. Up front you’re getting a totally not subtle message as what the next 100 minutes are gonna be about: the stripped out side of movies and acting. It leaves a dry feeling in your mouth, and feels welcome there. We also have some pretty good cinematography going on. Very deliberate camera angles; again no subtlety. The Canyons intends to whack upon your sensibilities and offer no quarter. Again, here’s the ugliness up front and personal, used exceptionally well in the sex scenes (did I mention LiLo gets naked a lot in this movie? You’re welcome). So we got that working for us, which is nice.


Let’s talk about the acting. This was the bugaboo that the intelligentsia really took issue with. Either James Deen is a really bad actor, or his performance is keenly calculating in line with Ellis’ writing. He’s just so smarmy he’s fun to hate, as well as hate his acting. He’s so full of himself and at the same time so weak. If the goal was indeed to make his character Christian so hateful to be a reflection of all too prevalent stereotypes in Tinsel Town, Schrader succeeded. If not? It’s still all deliciously fake.

Speaking of fake, Lohan here seems so out of place. Tara seems so bewildered as to her circumstances, so in denial of the fact that she’s just a tool and piece of ass, and not really caring. She comes across as totally out of breath and almost checked out emotionally. Even when she tries to muster up some muscle, it’s all so dire. Again, deliberate? Following along in the vein of the movie? Maybe.

Everyone is f*cking everyone else, figuratively and literally in this movie. It’s just so brutal, and you wish you could sympathize with someone on screen, but you can’t. It’s because they’re all cardboard caricatures of cardboard caricatures. Ciphers, empty and lacking any place for emotional investment. Once again…oh, well you get it by now. No nuances, no delicacy, just a rolling pin over your sense of civil behavior. All of it deliberate and without taste.

Everything in The Canyons is “on purpose.” Repeat this mantra: deliberately devoid of subtlety. I really don’t know about this one. Everything is so superficial, and maybe that’s the point. That seems to be the message trying to get across here. In other words, all’s fair in love, war and video apps.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A solid question mark. Really. The film is so on the nose fake that it’s sphinx-like in its intentions. I guess you gotta rent it to make up your own mind. I can’t really recommend it though.

Stray Observations…

  • I liked the “no kissing” thing. Elegantly sleazy.
  • “Nobody has a private life anymore…” “Okay. What do you talk to your shrink about?”
  • It’s curious how the characters in the film keep reminding us of “how beautiful” Tara is when in reality LiLo’s cosmetic surgery did her no favors.
  • “How was your day; you go to the gym?”
  • The use of Deen’s Bluetooth: very clever narration.
  • “Nod for me.”

Next Installment…

Aubrey Plaza has a short summer to check off all her “conquests” for her To-Do List.


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