Stuck in The Canyons

There is ample reason to be interested in The Canyons, the latest Lindsay Lohan film that seems to be on everyone's lips and laptop screens. It's undoubtedly provoking, though often times not for a good reason. It got a lot of buzz after a spectacular New York Times piece that detailed the film's troubled production and the cast and crew's antics on the set, but also hinted at a possibly weighty, meaningful movie that would utilize Lohan's talent. We all know it's there -- remember films such as Mean Girls, Georgia Rule and Bobby, among others? Yet, Lohan's involvement in dubious projects such as the critically panned Liz Taylor biopic or the similarly dismissed horror flick I Know Who Killed Me, in a saddening combination with her run-ins with the law and the media, as well as her drug addiction, keep her from showcasing and honing her natural talent. She has become one of pop culture's obvious casualties, a person we've known for a long time but can't help but feel tired of tolerating and, more importantly, watching her waste her gifts.

Thus we arrive at The Canyons, a film that absolutely will not rehabilitate Lohan artistically, as it's simply not good enough. However, it may just set up her comeback in a thoughtful, contemplative and somewhat relevant way. The Canyons is directed by Paul Schrader, with a screenplay by Bret Easton Ellis, and starring Lohan and James Deen, a would-be porn star-turned-actor. The only thing more surprising than the film's credits is its conception -- the director and screenwriter set out to make a film on a micro budget, acquired mainly through a Kickstarter campaign, without the involvement of a major studio and released primarily through video-on-demand. It is an independent project in a summer filled with movies made on pre-awareness that the global market dictates (The Smurfs, Man of Steel). The very fact this movie got made is an accomplishment in itself.

Unfortunately, the saga of the making of The Canyons - the Kickstarter project, the New York Times piece detailing Lohan's on-set shenanigans, the fact that internet now allows a movie to be distributed outside the Cineplex but still garner buzz and interest as if it was a major theatrical release -- is infinitely more interesting than the film itself. In fact, I think it is safe to say these things effectively make the movie, and The Canyons is at its best and most meaningful whenever it exhibits a degree of self-awareness. It opens, for example, with shots of defunct movie theaters that speak of the movie's conception as much as the nostalgia of show business and Hollywood's glamorous secrets, and Lohan's character Tara gives an inspired monologue that rehashes this thematic thread at one point in the movie. Her boyfriend Christian, played by porn star Deen, tells her that "nobody has a private life anymore," at which point the audience has to work hard to see through the actors and into the characters they play -- after all, it only takes one Google search to find countless videos of Deen having sex. There is even a point during the scene of a decadent, strobe light-illuminated orgy when Schraeder gives us a close-up of Lohan's face looking directly into the camera, naked and her skin sprinkled with disco lights. She does not break the fourth wall, she trashes it. It is no longer Tara we are seeing, but Lindsay herself, in a situation the tabloids and the general public perceive as her only reality, her smirk both arresting and devastating, an unmasking as well as another misrepresentation. The scene is as good as the film gets, actually, as it is one of the few moments where the characters' power play is handled in a way that's not simply declarative, but intense in its implication and nuance. Once again, Ms. Lohan's talent almost saves the day. Details like this work hard to somewhat elevate the cheapjack screenplay, the oppressive sense of laziness and some awful performances, but they simply don't stand a chance.

Without a doubt, it is Lohan's performance alone that gives The Canyons any appeal at all. There is apparent vulnerability and a keen understanding of Tara's character on display, and in a few key scenes, she really gives it her all, standing head and shoulders above anyone else involved and injecting her character (vapid and uninspiring like everyone else in the film) with some semblance of internal life and logic. James Deen has charisma and screen presence, and is an adequate casting choice to embody the bleak perception of Los Angeles, or at least this very particular iteration of Los Angeles, as tragically insipid and (literally) pornographic. Unfortunately, while he is framed as a modern variation on Vicomte de Valmont, Deen comes off more as a two-bit trickster with an exceptional sex drive more than a fully-formed character driven by a particular ideology or ambition. That the film's plot relies on Deen's scheming and wounded masculinity doesn't help the cause, since he can't really carry even the weakest of narratives, particularly when the plot itself doesn't make much sense.

As a dreary meditation on living life in the fast lane, of power play in intimate relationships and privileged ennui, The Canyons is tolerable, if not particularly original -- Bret Easton Ellis himself has tackled similar themes before in Less Than Zero and other works, and with greater clarity and coherence. This film wants to say something about the condition of the modern man, ready to barter any sense of self for a comfortable living, yet it is unable to make a dent in any kind of substantial way. As a pop cultural happening, it is more than entertaining, if not always intentionally. However, the proceedings themselves bog down the movie considerably, and it suffers from a severe case of loving itself so much that it doesn't allow anyone else to join in on the fun. It ultimately becomes a pop cultural chore, unless you consider Lohan. Because for good or for bad, LiLo is a sight to behold, and whenever she is on screen, The Canyons benefits in a way it doesn't really deserve.