Shot on location in Utah and Arizona, “The Canyon” could be named for the gaping expanse between its preposterously silly dialogue and sturdy, at times urgent direction. First-time feature helmer Richard Harrah proves unafraid to disturb — up to a point — with his survivalist tale of naive young newlyweds stranded in the Grand Canyon; particularly when the two are too weak to talk, the picture works. Absent stars, Magnolia’s Truly Indie release (which opens Oct. 23 for a limited run) will struggle to connect theatrically, but could play better via VOD to drama-starved auds at home, within comfortable reach of food and water.
Newly hitched in Vegas, attractive but insufferably baby-talking Chicago couple Lori (Yvonne Strahovski) and Nick (Eion Bailey) are introduced checking into an Arizona motel with plans to honeymoon on muleback in the Grand Canyon (Nick’s idea). After discovering they’re at least half a year late to acquire permits for such an escapade, they meet Henry (Will Patton), a gruff and grizzly eavesdropper who offers from across the bar to supply mules, permits and guidance to the canyon’s little-known caves, crevices and lookout points.
Exactly why this rugged ol’ Westerner would venture into such terrain without an antidote for snake venom is a question best posed to first-time screenwriter Steve Allrich. In any case, having pushed the inexperienced couple to accept increasing risks in trade for spectacular views, twice-bitten Henry gets delirious and dies, while the spooked mules beat a hasty retreat, leaving Lori and Nick to consider munching rattlesnake meat as they wander the craggy landscape in circles and, alas, discuss their dreams of canyon pizza delivery in cringe-inducing detail.
A very fine character actor, Patton (“Wendy and Lucy,” “Remember the Titans”) makes a strong enough impression for the viewer to wish his colorful character had lived past the second or third reel. Bailey (“Band of Brothers”) merely grates, though Strahovski (of TV’s “Chuck”) mostly rises to the occasion as Lori is forced to reveal a plausibility-straining set of survival skills — even in the face of hungry wolves.
As night falls several times and the couple’s collective condition deteriorates, Heitor Pereira’s music serves, for better or worse, to maintain some audience optimism. Widescreen cinematography by Nelson Cragg effectively emphasizes the marrieds’ miniscule relation with Mother Nature, whose effortless performance is the film’s best by a canyon’s width.