It’s hard to talk about The Canyons without talking about the making of The Canyons. From profiles in The New York Times to think pieces in Film Comment to essays by the filmmakers on their give-and-take with star Lindsay Lohan, they have all magnified the scenes behind the scenes, cultivating an expectation of a nasty piece of work. It is that. But not in the way you were hoping for.
So before you click download on this sometimes-erotic thriller, know this: you’re not about to watch Obsessed. The Canyons is a movie about empty people with empty lives finding a thrill in their nihilistic attempts to feel.
Don’t be dismayed by the many critics who were ready to clamp down on The Canyons as soon as they possibly could: it’s not as bad as they’re saying. It’s a low-budget film that looks like it was filmed on a low budget, but in most respects that’s its biggest crime. Press-stopping names were hired to make up for the lack of financial backing, and that resulted in Lohan and her renown porn co-star James Deen taking the lead roles. What they do with it comes down to their different schools of performing. Deen, most studious in the money shot, does everything shy of winking at you. At times, it works, especially when Deen needs to be a more playful, sneakingly sinister Christian. At others, it doesn’t. There are points when The Canyons could have served itself better by choosing not to show us anything at all.
But it’s Lohan who gives a great performance — and I’m being 100 percent un-ironic when I say that. Perhaps the other roles were filled in with lackluster actors allowing her to gleam in the spotlight, but not only is Lohan the star of The Canyons, she’s the most believable part of it. Lohan reins it in and delivers when the script calls for it. It’s a shame, then, that the screenplay didn’t give her more to do.
Sure — you’ve seen the trailer, and you’ve read the articles — Lohan strips down and hams it up in raunchy sex scenes, but her role as Tara is given the least story.
The Canyons is about an ex-aspiring actress Tara (Lohan) and her producer boyfriend Christian (Deen) who work on B-grade slasher flicks. Christian has just hired an actor, Ryan (Nolan Gerard Funk), by Tara’s request and as a favor to his assistant (Ryan’s girlfriend) who is spearheading the film. There’s just one sordid detail: Tara and Ryan have a history. They have a present, too. And Christian grows more and more suspicious and paranoid with each passing moment. Soon, the trio indirectly involve themselves in a play of sexual prowess and desire, pushing the limits of how far they’d degrade themselves to rise to power in the hollow city of Los Angeles. But most of it goes to Christian and Ryan, having Tara pop up to react to most of the situations whenever convenient.
It appears that The Canyons has many things to say: it wants to converse about the conveyor belt filmmaking that has become the norm in Hollywood, it wants to comment on the lack of creativity in the market, it wants to warn the masses of micro-budget films accessible to anyone with a camera-phone, to show you the lack of intellectual connections of this generation, and it surely wants to let you peek into the lives of sexy people who offer not much more than that to the world. Exposing the shallowness of L.A.’s elite and elite-hopefuls is always a fine line to ride, and unfortunately a lot of The Canyons comes up short.
See, The Canyons touches upon all these subjects, but it never really does more than that. It shows these people to you and then never makes any judgements. It displays them for all to see and then just quietly fades to black. Perhaps that was the intention, mirroring the soulless in a film that’s equally as shallow, but perhaps not — the film does open up with images of abandoned theaters, and runs those images throughout, for that matter.
And it feels that way — cold. It’s dead, airy. The first few minutes are dedicated to four characters just talking at a restaurant, everyone staring into the camera, talking to each other but to no one, really. It’s about all of us actually being actors, pretending to feel how we need to in certain situations. Every once in a while a character will look directly at you: “This is fake. We’re pretending,” The Canyons is saying. None of this is real, for as much as The Canyons wants to feel distant and isolated, it also wants you to have front-row access to these characters and all of their depravity, at times forcing you to stroll along with them in long, tracking movements. And, yes, low-budget filmmaking means The Canyons has to heavily rely on people talking at each other about information (I love you! We were broke! Exposition ad nauseam!).
But something happened halfway into The Canyons where I stopped thinking that and I became invested.
The crux of low-budget filmmaking is, of course, the lack of resources — then, the lack of talent, the lack of multiple setups, and the lack of time. But most importantly, unwillingness to dig deeper into the issues of vapidity. If not for that, if even some supporting players were up to task, The Canyons could have soared to Bling Ring and Spring Breakers heights.