I read a comment about Paul Schrader’s latest that made me crack a smile. Something to the effect of “this film despises itself.” To an extent I think this is true, or at least, it aims in the right direction. But The Canyons also takes itself very seriously. Rather than coming across as a kind of satire, it comes across as an honest and serious attempt at a tonal mashup of soap opera / softcore pornography with a flair for modern conventions. What I gleaned is that the filmmakers’ outlooks on humanity, with these LA dolly-birds as the microcosm, is rather dismal. Humans may be nothing more than facades, housing primal motives for possession and power, operating by manipulations. I should remark that The Canyons is NOT a softcore porn – its sexuality is psychological, not purely to arouse – but it does emulate the tenor and content of that medium.
Lohan actually stands out in her role as Tara, a young woman in a “complicated” live-in relationship with the fabulously wealthy and severe Christian – perhaps because she is surrounded by relative mediocrity, perhaps because there is something truly genuine on display. She looks haggered, exhausted, physically and emotionally. She has the sense that something real might be lurking underneath the makeup, and it’s all she can do to hold up her own decaying façade.
James Deen gets the job done as Christian – not well done – just ….done. He gets the smarmy overconfident manipulator down pat, and delivers his lines with enjoyable swiftness, but he isn’t quite able to suggest the deep seed of sociopathy that
we are to be ultimately convinced of. Ryan (Nolan Funk), a struggling actor and the interloper of Christian and Tara, is the lesser of the three on the scale of convincing performances, however his ability as an actor is in question within the film itself, so one wonders….is he just ok, or is he channeling a quality of his character? I’d be willing to suspend judgment because of the few self-reflexive moments throughout the film, glances by characters at the camera (think Funny Games) that both implicate the audience to a degree and emphasize the physical act of acting through self-awareness.
The intermittent photographs of defunct and dilapidated movie houses are the signpost of two things, the viewpoint that perhaps cinema is dead or the age of the moviehouse at least, and also serve as an analogy to the crumbling architecture that supports illusions, fantasies, vanities, that motivates unrealistic expectations of life; ie the shells of these three characters.
For me, nothing ever exceeds the opening scene, a conversation between the four main players. The way it is edited, voices first heard over the faces of listeners, their eyes looking directly at the camera or askance at their phones. It produces a kind of discomfort, if not anxiety, as does the tone of the conversation in which Christian belittles Ryan’s acquiring a role in a film he is producing. The atmosphere is awkward in a complicated kind of way because it evokes extant tensions from the history of these characters that we are as yet unaware. That scene alone is fantastic.
Ultimately, I would qualify The Canyons as a tonal experiment that warrants, if not demands a process of refinement in future projects. The Canyons makes a fantastic sketch, but a lukewarm film. I think Schrader and Ellis could truly hone a unique and highly modern crossbreed of the sensibilities of softcore porn / melodrama / psychological thriller, they just need to take things farther, and a little deeper (pun intended). Ideas are there, just underexplored.
The Canyons is now available on VOD.