The opening credits for Paul Schrader and Bret Easton Ellis’ The Canyons play over still photographs of abandoned movie theaters. Then the film proper begins, with two couples on a double date at a posh Los Angeles restaurant—the trust-funded Christian (James Deen), his girlfriend Tara (Lindsay Lohan), his assistant Gina (Amanda Brooks), and her boyfriend Ryan (Nolan Funk). Amid lengthy digressions about their sex lives and numerous glances at their cell phones, they discuss plans for an upcoming movie production funded by Christian and starring Ryan, at Tara’s behest.
If the opening credits (and the occasional intertitles that carry their symbolism through the entire film) represent the ruins of a faded golden age of cinema, these characters are the ruiners. Christian just wants something to do with his money, Tara needs something to fill her time, and Ryan only got the part because of his connections. (It’s certainly not because of his acting skills). These people are making movies as a distraction, rather than a passion.
They make The Canyons a surprisingly brutal portrait of what Schrader describes in interviews as the world of “post-theatrical cinema,” where anyone can make a movie, and most of them—including every character in The Canyons—shouldn’t. Prosumer cameras, Kickstarter, video on demand: All made The Canyons possible. But the result of those exciting tools is a cold, sad story that depicts the next generation of moviemakers as spoiled, vapid narcissists. The movie seems to despise itself.
After their dinner date, Christian and Tara return home, where he invites a stranger over to have sex with his girlfriend while he watches and records the encounter. The couple’s relationship appears as open as their mansion’s views of the Malibu hills, but Christian’s sexual adventurousness and candor mask deep jealousies. It’s quickly revealed that Tara and Ryan dated when both were first starting out in Los Angeles, and that working on the movie rekindled their attraction. When Christian begins to suspect their affair, he sets out to destroy his rival and get him fired off the film, setting off a chain reaction of casting-couch trysts, lengthy four-way sex scenes, and murder.
The lead character’s name recalls the actor who played Ellis’ most famous creation in American Psycho, but Deen is no Christian Bale. An adult-film star with more than 4,000 movies to his credit, he’s been trained by a career in pornography to play to the camera at all times. His performance is all sneers and smirks, perfect for Christian the superficial sleazebag, but far less effective for Christian the covetous, violent psychopath. Most of the rest of the cast is similarly beautiful but bland, and Schrader’s occasional visual tricks, like having the characters talk directly into the camera in a way that evokes FaceTime phone calls, barely enliven the shapeless, dreary dialogue scenes.
Lohan is the exception. Looking at least a decade older than her 27 years, with dark, severe makeup, she captures the essence of a woman chewed up and spit out by the Hollywood machine. Lohan is naked in several sequences, but she really only bares all in the climactic scene, when she lets down her hair, ditches the heavy eyeliner and mascara, and takes a full accounting of the damage her fast lifestyle has caused.
Like Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring earlier this summer, The Canyons is set on the fringes of the movie business, and stars its youngest and most beautiful barnacles. They both look like films about celebrity, but they’re really about exhibitionism, and the need modern young people have to express themselves, despite their utter lack of anything to express. When they run out of things to do, they turn to crime. In this world, fame and infamy are almost interchangeable.
But if Schrader and Ellis set out to prove that movies are dying or already dead, they might have done their job too well. The Canyons doesn’t play like the cure for a moribund industry, so much as a mildly effective, highly depressing administration of the last rites.