Tara (Lindsay Lohan) and her boyfriend Christian (James Deen) are an actress and filmmaker respectively, but they've both had better days than those they're living when we meet them at a bar on Sunset Strip in Hollywood. Christian is in the process of appeasing his father by doing something with all of the money he inherited: he's making a low budget horror movie. It's for this reason that the pair have met up with Christian's assistant, Gina (Amanda Brooks) and her would be actor boyfriend Ryan (Nolan Funk). Christian is decided to cast him as the lead in his picture mainly because the guy is broke and he doesn't mind playing favorites. While the four of them are sitting around a table, Christian is setting up a kinky rendezvous using an app on his phone. Later that night, he arranges to someone to come to his home and have sex with Tara. Christian gets off on watching and he and Tara are definitely into the whole swingers thing.
So with the characters more or less established, it's time to tear them down. This was written by Brett Easton Ellis, after all. Tara and Christian are into the swinging thing so long as they're doing it together. Things get dicey in their relationship when apt suspicions arise. Tara thinks that Christian might be getting it on with his yoga instructor Cynthia (Tenille Houston), all while she's been sleeping with Ryan behind Christian's back. If both of them are cheating, how can they trust each other? To add another layer of deceit to all of this, neither Ryan nor Tara have told Christian or Gina that they once lived together. As Christian starts to realize what's been going on, he starts to become more and more aggressive towards all involved, even going so far as to spy on Tara. As the next few days' events unfold before us, we basically watch all of these characters consistently hit new lows while Christian's sanity seems to be starting to crack.
You'd think that the man who wrote Taxi Driver and directed films like Hardcore and American Gigolo would make a solid choice to direct something written by the guy who penned American Psycho and Less Than Zero. You'd think, given that much of their work independently of one another focuses on immorality and the seedy side of life, that they'd make some sort of artistic connection, they'd be on the same wave length. With The Canyons, directed by Paul Schrader and written by the aforementioned Mr. Ellis, for whatever reason that didn't happen. Maybe it was a project that was truly damned from the start. Formed from the ashes of another collaboration that the pair never got off the ground (a shark movie!), the film made headlines before it even premiered not just for featuring a troubled and off the rails Lindsay Lohan and a popular male porno actor in the lead roles but also for being denied a screening at both the Sundance and SXSW festivals for quality issues. This one was deemed a turd before most even really got a chance to see it. Does the shoe fit?
Yeah, for the most part it does, but this is watchable enough trash if you're in the right frame of mind for it. The movie looks early on like it's going to provide some sort of scathing critique of the state of the American film industry. Like it will poke holes in Hollywood's obsession with fame and status and wanton disregard these days for the artistic merits of filmmaking. Like it might take some well-deserved shots and the blockbuster mentality that has all but crushed independent distribution. It doesn't. None of that really happens. The movie alludes to it both by showcasing some abandoned theaters and by placing its melodrama in the workings of the film industry, but it never really does much more with that idea. Which is a shame, as that's something you'd think Schrader and Ellis could do well. They don't though. Instead they sex it up, they go for exploitation over content and while that's all well and good in that it does offer up some cheap and salacious thrills, you want more from them because you know that they're both capable of delivering it.
But what of the cast, surely they're at least partially to blame, right? A washed up former child star and a porno actor, they had to have been an albatross on the movie's neck from the start!? It'd be easy to assume that but if you've seen Deen's work, you know he's at least got some charisma and some screen presence. He's not the problem here. He isn't going to win an Oscar for the part he plays but he's fine in the role. He's distant enough in the opening bits that we can understand he's drifting into bad territory and he can emote when the script requires him too. Lohan was, by all accounts, difficult to work with on set. There's a New York Times article you can read that details in if you so choose but she had trouble showing up and answering phone calls among other things. Regardless, maybe it's her fall from grace that makes her watchable here. She's still pretty. The world and her lifestyle choices have taken a toll on her but her green eyes still have some sparkle to them. The movie fails to capitalize on this, however. She's not shot with any particularly erotic bent, which is at odds with the story that insists on reminding us how hot everything thinks she is. Where Deen has charisma, however, Lohan is occasionally a bit flat. She doesn't sink the film though. It's interesting to watch her.
Schrader crams a lot of nonsense into his ninety-minutes here. He bounces back and forth between traditional cinematography and handheld cinematography in interesting ways, resulting in a movie that has a sort of hyperactive look to it. The pacing is okay and there are some memorable moments in the picture, not the least of which is Lohan's highly touted nude scene. The movie was made for a modest $250,000.00, a combination of cash put up by Schrader and Ellis and the results of a Kickstarter campaign so we can accept some of the low budget foibles despite the pedigree of the guys behind the project. The biggest issue with all of this? The script. It just doesn't have a whole lot of depth to it. Ellis blamed Schrader and Schrader blamed Ellis and there have been some interesting interviews and reports in the media since the movie had its brief theatrical run. Where the truth lies is anyone's guess but as it is in this form, The Canyons is an interesting and completely misguided movie. It tries to be a satirical look at the film industry, a black comedy to a degree, but drops that idea early on. Then it attempts to be a highly sexualized erotic thriller but forgets to eroticize the sex scenes and the nudity. So what is it? A fairly interesting and not all together terrible mess of a movie, watchable despite its many painfully obvious flaws and very much in spite of itself. It's got some atmosphere, some weirdness to it, and it's occasionally poignant when the story actually feels like it's got something to say and these moments, if far from making up the bulk of the movie, do make things worth sitting through. This won't be a movie for the masses by any stretch, and it's certainly not ‘good' in the traditional mainstream sense of the word but anyone with an interest in nihilistic filmmaking and like their rich characters played with detachment and disdain might find there are enough bizarre nuggets here to make it worth a watch.
MPI offers up The Canyons in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed at 2.35.1 widescreen. This transfer would appear to be pretty accurate of the source material (which just so happens to be rather flat looking in terms of lighting and use of color). As the movie was shot on a modest budget with HD digital cameras, we don't have any sort of film like textures to discuss. There are some minor compression artifacts in a few spots and occasionally there are shots that look noisier than others but for the most part this is a perfectly decent looking picture. Colors are reproduced rather well and detail is fine. There's a bit of crush as far as the black levels are concerned but it's a minor issue, it isn't particularly distracting. Skin looks like skin, there isn't any obvious banding nor are there any aliasing issues and, all in all, the movie looks fine. Not mind blowing, but fine.
Audio options are provided in English DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio and English LPCM 2.0 Stereo with subtitles offered up in English SDH and Spanish. The audio fares a little better than the video does, particularly in regards to the 5.1 mix. While most of the mix is geared towards the front, what with this being a fairly dialogue intensive film and all, we do get some nice surround action adding subtle effects here and there. The rear channels also spread the score around rather effectively and there are no issues with any hiss or distortion. Dialogue has reasonable depth and presence to it and the levels are nicely balanced throughout, regardless of which audio option you choose.
Extras are primarily made up of two brief featurettes, the first being the six minute Creating The Canyons which is simply a collection of behind the scenes/fly on the wall style footage that is presented without a whole lot of context. It does give us some insight into what the locations were like and how the crew got along but that's about it. It's broken up into five parts: The Cast, The Crew, The Locations, The Look and The Style. A little more interesting is the nine minute Creating The Canyons Featurette win which we get some quick interviews with director Paul Schrader, writer Bret Easton Ellis, producer Braxton Pope, and leading man James Deen. Discussions here include the script, making the film outside the studio system and more.
Rounding out the extras are a trailer for the feature, menus and chapter selection. We really, really, really should have had an Ellis/Schrader commentary here but for obvious reasons that didn't happen.
The Canyons is cold, it's disjointed and it's very obviously riddled with all manner of problems but it's not the unwatchable garbage some have claimed it to be. There are moments where the cast shine, there are moments where Schrader's vision seems apparent and there are even moments where this feels like Ellis firing on all cylinders, but the lack of consistency in any of those traits, particularly in terms to the meanderings of the script, definitely hurt things. It's a hard movie to recommend, most won't enjoy it and it'd be hard to fault some for dismissing it as profane, trashy and pointless. As such, we're going to go with ‘rent it' for this one, the slim extras don't help much there either. There are those who will appreciate this though and if you feel you fall into that camp, MPI's Blu-ray release is at least a good presentation of the movie, warts and all.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.