Film Review: The Canyons

Less than X but more than zero, this polished Paul Schrader/Bret Easton Ellis drama about a largely amoral L.A. clique of superficial fringe players with little more than pleasure on their otherwise empty minds will be catnip for Gawker/TMZ-loving loya

Two respected but unrelenting Hollywood-y subversives—filmmaker Paul Schrader (screenplays for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull; writer-director of Blue Collar, Hard Core, and so much more) and novelist Bret Easton Ellis (Less Than Zero)—deliver in The Canyons a bleak, superficial but watchable look at some young adult bad boys and girls caught up in L.A.’s non-freeway fast lanes of drugs and sex, too much money, lying, and worse. By way of the soundtrack, rock ’n’ roll is here too, matching the creepy, ice-cold lives of the protagonists.

Beyond familiar story elements and characters are other reasons the movie is want-to-see gold: the continuing coverage of star and rehab-regular Lindsay Lohan’s troubles, adult-film star James Deen’s crossover to legit, and the film’s flirtation with going the porn route. Also luring are the reputations of mavericks Schrader and Ellis (here delivering his first original screenplay). The film even has ballast but, except for the nudity, graphic it’s not. However, hats (if not pants) off to the marketing campaign that teased otherwise. Eyeballs can have The Canyons where and when they want it. In addition to the few theatrical dates, the film, as promiscuous as some of its characters, is available on VOD and digitally through iTunes, Xbox and other platforms.

Viewers will encounter both the expected and unexpected. Expected is craftsmanship reflecting Schrader’s expertise and his attraction to outlaw themes and content. And no surprise that Ellis’ rich, reckless, decadent young characters, who slinked through works like Less Than Zero and The Laws of Attraction, and went psycho in American Psycho (all adapted to film), again drop by.

Unexpected, in addition to the relatively chaste content, is that star Deen may very well have a breakthrough role here. All performances register high, including Lohan and her husky voice, but Deen, even inhabiting a must-hate character, truly impresses as an actor who “gets” the craft and its nuances.

Deen plays Christian, a rudderless trust-fund baby who dabbles in porn, financing indies, and drugs and sex whenever. He soon suspects that his slutty wannabe actress girlfriend Tara (Lohan), who stars in the pop-up hook-up moments at their apartment that he captures with his smart-phone, is cheating on him.

Needing proof, he will wend his way using friend Gina (Amanda Brooks), his ex, Cynthia (Tenille Houston), and a hoodied snoop (Jarod Einsohn). As it turns out, Tara has reconnected with her former other, Ryan (Nolan Funk, who boasts a Bieber-like baby face on a hunky body). He and Tara have been carrying on a secret affair for a month.

Ryan is yet another wannabe L.A. actor who, thanks to Tara lobbying Christian, has landed the main role in the low-budget slasher film Christian is financing. But short of funds, he poses for beefcake photos and works as a bartender for boutique hotelier Randall (Victor Fischbarg), who needs more than his bars tended.

Along the way in this twisted and twisty L.A. world, Christian strong-arms Jon (Jim Boeven), his producer, into firing Ryan. He also puts Tara on notice via text that he knows she’s cheating on him. Maybe feeling the heat, Christian drops in on his shrink Dr. Campbell (Gus Van Sant) to again complain about his control-freak father (who clearly isn’t controlling enough).

What The Canyons comes down to is another reordering of Ellis’ disordered, violent, nasty, nihilistic world: The more things change, the more they don’t. Intermittent shots of a shuttered, lonely, dilapidated and depressing movie theatre are a stark contrast to the steely cold, modern apartments and trendy restaurants the characters inhabit. The peeling cinema palace of yore functions as a multi-tasking visual metaphor for both a general decline in values and the old-fashioned movie theatres that Michigan-born cinephile Schrader surely cherishes.