The signature psychosexual perversity of director Paul Schrader finds its nearly perfect match in novelist Bret Easton Ellis, whose screenplay for Schrader’s “The Canyons” might just as soon have been called “Psycho American Gigolo” or “The Hardcore Rules of Attraction.” The first in the new wave of Kickstarter-funded features instigated by established old-media types, Schrader’s ultra-low-budget (reportedly $250,000) but handsomely made study of low-level Hollywood hangers-on has earned much prerelease attention for the casting of real-life porn star James Deen and the troubled Lindsay Lohan (also one of the pic’s co-producers). But the end result is hardly a joke, not least for Lohan’s fascinating presence, far closer to self-revelation than self-parody. Between VOD curiosity seekers and adventurous arthouse-goers, “The Canyons” is sure to see solid returns on its modest investment, while pushing Schrader back into the zeitgeist after a long fallow period.
The latest but surely not the last 2013 release devoted to the amoral (s)exploits of hungry young things clawing at the good life (e.g. “The Bling Ring,” “Pain & Gain,” “Spring Breakers”), “The Canyons” is also the most overt in its evocation of such caustic industry cautionary tales as “The Day of the Locust” and “The Bad and the Beautiful.” To wit, Schrader makes a recurring motif out of boarded-up old movie theaters (seen as a montage under the opening credits and as chapter headings throughout), suggesting that Tinseltown ain’t what it used to be and, yes, the pictures — like “The Canyons” itself — really have gotten smaller. There is something of David Lynch’s “Mulholland Dr.” and “Inland Empire,” too, in the pic’s sense of a place where everyone is always playing some alternate version of him- or herself, whether onscreen or off.
Like the director’s 1990 “The Comfort of Strangers,” “The Canyons” charts the increasingly treacherous aftershocks that stem from the initial encounter of two couples: smug rich kid Christian (Deen), who’s invested in a low-budget slasher movie about to shoot in New Mexico; his girlfriend, Tara (Lohan); his assistant, Gina (Amanda Brooks); and her boyfriend, Ryan (Nolan Funk), an aspiring actor who’s landed the lead in Christian’s movie. They meet over dinner and drinks, during which Christian stuns the fresh-faced, Joe Buck-ish Ryan with tales of his and Tara’s open relationship, including frequent additional partners of both sexes. (He is, when the movie begins, going though “a dude phase.”)
We soon learn that, three years earlier, when they were both nobodies, Ryan and Tara were themselves an item. Now, ever since reconnecting at Ryan’s audition, they’ve been meeting for illicit afternoon hookups, but while Ryan is still smitten, Tara is more pragmatic. She’s not interested in going back to their old, hardscrabble life together, she tells him in an early scene set at the Century City shopping mall — a scene Lohan plays with such raw conviction that you can’t be sure who’s more afraid of slipping back into working-stiff anonymity, her or her character.
It doesn’t take long for the jealous Christian to figure out what’s going on under his blow-dusted nose, and to plot his revenge. It’s the least interesting aspect of the movie, though Deen is a minor revelation in the role. Having garnered a lot of ink in recent years as the nice-Jewish-boy porn star with the high IQ and rocket-scientist parents, the actor is used here for maximum smiling-psycho value — another in Ellis’ expansive gallery of spoiled brats who’ve never stopped wanting to get their way, even if they have to kill for it. And Deen is more than up for the challenge; he holds the camera captive with his chilly, privately amused stare.
What Christian really wants to do is direct, as evidenced by the amateur sex videos he makes starring himself, Tara and a variety of special guest stars. But if the sex in “The Canyons” is duly kinky and explicit — and surely one of the pic’s selling points, thanks to Lohan’s ample bosom and Deen’s celebrated schlong — it seems almost parochial compared with what the characters do to each other when they have their clothes on. Certainly, it’s no more outre than anything in “Basic Instinct” (which may be a measure of just how chaste movies have gotten again in the last 20 years). Schrader and Ellis’ intended showstopper — a four-way mini-orgy between Christian, Tara and an anonymous couple recruited online — unfolds mostly as closeups on faces, and could almost be accused of being tasteful were it not for the blanket of swirling multi-colored lights that turn the scene into an X-rated version of the Main Street Electrical Parade.
Gratuitous lighting effects aside, the guerrilla shoot seems to have reinvigorated Schrader, and the result is his most stylish picture in years, probably since “Auto Focus.” Shot in sleek widescreen HD by John DeFazio, with a pulsing, Giorgio Moroder-esque electronic score (credited to Brendan Canning and the Canadian duo Me and John), the movie’s surfaces gleam as attractively as its toned and tanned bodies, the latter constantly framed small against vast canvases of Oceanside bluffs, Sunset Boulevard traffic and hazy nighttime skies. This, Schrader seems to be saying, is the flame to which the moths are drawn, even if it is ultimately no more than a flickering illusion. The phrase Pauline Kael once used to describe Schrader’s aesthetic springs readily to mind: “apocalyptic swank.”
“The Canyons” doesn’t engender much sympathy for its characters — even nice-guy Ryan (convincingly played by Funk as just another pretty, none-too-bright face in the crowd) ultimately comes across as a cipher, to say nothing of Gina, who seems less concerned about her boyfriend’s infidelities than about the possibility of losing her credit on Christian’s movie. The major exception is Lohan, who gives one of those performances, like Marlon Brando’s in “Last Tango in Paris,” that comes across as some uncanny conflagration of drama and autobiography. Lohan may not go as deep or as far as Brando, but with her puffy skin, gaudy hoop earrings and thick eye makeup, there’s a little-girl-lost quality to the onetime Disney teen princess that’s very affecting. Whenever she’s onscreen, she projects a sense of just barely holding on to that precarious slide area in the shadow of the Hollywood sign.