The Canyons is the mirror in which you find whatever you're looking for. It's a fascinating experiment in geometric patterns of human behavior, taking Last Year at Marienbad's haunted spaces and conflating them with the decaying multiplexes left behind by the digital changeover and public indifference. At the same time, it's an incisive portrait of post-hookup app culture, where there's always something or someone new or hotter just a swipe of the screen away, but it doesn't matter because everybody's already fucked everybody else.
It's also a simultaneous comeback and kiss-off from besieged star Lindsay Lohan, an interesting mainstream debut for porn star James Deen, a perfect realization of the kind of Kubrick-and-cocaine portraiture that screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis excels at, and a resolute declaration that Paul Schrader, screenwriter of Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ and director of Adam Resurrected and Cat People, has no intention of mellowing out any time soon. An ice bath in depraved alienation that revolves around the making of a no-budget shocker, The Canyons is a down-and-dirty B-movie, visually witty and texturally overwhelming, and it's exciting and emotionally brutal in a way that American movies typically aren't.
The film is framed with images of abandoned, decaying moviehouses, some reclaimed by nature, others left to preserve a now-forgotten time. You can't say that the cellphone killed moviegoing, or that the smartphone finished it off, but they certainly did their best. That respite from the exterior world that some get from church used to be found at the movies as well.
Not anymore. What The Canyons gets exactly right is that technology helps collapse boundaries. Smartphones have rendered the distinction between public and private almost nonexistent, while crowd-sourcing and Video on Demand services have allowed the cinema to take hold in other places besides Los Angeles offices and expense-account luncheons. You can send a photo to someone you love just as easily as you can find some strange to spice up your night — often at the same time.
So, as is his gift, Ellis has given us a portrait of the now. As the domestic film industry sinks more and more into the export business of mega-dollar action epics, who exactly is calling the shots? Old money and CEOs with business degrees who aren't really concerned with movies except as an abstraction capable of bringing in a certain audience. People with money and connections are driving the car, same as everywhere else, and in the case of Christian (Deen), the car is sleek and exotic and heading elegantly toward a cliff somewhere down the road.
Christian is gorgeous, and dick-driven enough to make his born-for-porn reveal genuinely shocking but thematically exact (to those unfamiliar with Deen's real-life day job). He's also an unreadable sociopath into control and influence who rages against the strings held over him. So, as humans do, he works out his issues on everyone around him — including his girlfriend Tara (Lohan), described as someone just looking for “something to do besides shopping and fucking.”
How you respond to Tara may very well determine how you respond to The Canyons. Some may see her as a woman doing her best to define her own terms for living her life. Some may see her as a kinky doormat into whatever is thrown her way, just for comfort's sake. You could even say she's just been treading water so long you can't tell if she's drowning or training. That she's played by Lindsay Lohan lends metatextual terror to what already is a wrenchingly cold tale. The sense with both Lohan and Tara is that they've seen all of this before: recursive circles of influence and subjugation.
If you look at how Lohan had to grow up, it's amazing she kept it together as long as she did. You could see the star's embodiment of the disconnect between the films that made her famous and what was tearing her real life apart in her last starring role, 2007's underrated film maudit I Know Who Killed Me, where she played a hard-living exotic dancer desperately trying to convince an entire neighborhood that she wasn't her goody-good long-lost twin sister.
There's not a single image in The Canyons that approaches the horrifying majesty of I Know Who Killed Me's final shot, but anyone who expects that Lohan has nothing to offer viewers is sorely mistaken. She tears into this role with fierce energy, walking the fine line between dominance and desperation in several scenes that hit way harder than you'd think they would, especially after reading so much of the vitriol directed this film's way. It's a fearless and messy performance, alive and immersive and horrifying in ways few actors would dare.
So Christian and Tara's life is one of premieres and nice dinners, of finding people online for sensual pursuits, and occasionally getting movies made. There's a slasher film that's going to be made in New Mexico soon, and Tara's been helping Christian's assistant Gina put it together. It'll be starring Ryan (Nolan Funk), who has ties to both women, and it's the linchpin around which the whole film pivots. The trapezoid of infidelities springing from the four, laid out magnificently in the opening scene and then stripped to the wire over the next few, give us a fractal roundelay that expands and contracts with each new character brought into play, each supposition, lie, and manufactured smile.
Everybody is about euphemisms — nothing is what it is, everything represents the worst possible interpretation one could bring to it, and nobody wants to admit what they actually mean or who they actually are, or even at whose behest something is happening. There's no righteous indignation left to go around in this world, and with so many secret plans, texted conversations, double meanings, and multileveled betrayals, the Los Angeles of Schrader and Ellis feels like the Hogwarts of sexual manipulation. The architecture even alters and reforms our main characters (such is Schrader's gift with a setup), because no one can ever be straightforward.
That's the tragic lesson of the movies that we as a species have taken in and taken to heart. It's not wanton sexuality or grotesque violence, but the idea that without conflict there is nothing. Straightforward discourse is anathema to us, and technology has given us the ability to stir up some conflict 24/7. Look at reality shows; how do we even describe what normal, reasonable human behavior is?
The Canyons' response is that you can't. You find what works for you and keep the engine going. You do what you have to to get by. And when you find your way up or out, you take it. It's the same message Schrader served up in 1978's Blue Collar, still (along with 9 to 5) the best film ever made about the American workplace. Nobody wins, and everything ends. And there's always somebody else pulling the strings.
The Canyons is available through all VoD outlets beginning Aug. 2.