The Canyons Is Vital, Messy, and Alive With Regret

A movie can be highly imperfect, stilted, or implausible in all sorts of ways—and still be everything you go to the movies for. The Canyons, Paul Schrader's contemplation of moral decay in Hollywood, is that kind of picture, in some places so crazy-silly you want to laugh and in others so piercing you can't turn away. Schrader has plenty to say: He kicks off with a montage of boarded-up, tumbling-down movie theaters, and their visages reappear throughout the film like sad little ghosts. But mostly, he channels his feelings of disappointment, of longing, of an unnameable bummed-out something, through Lindsay Lohan. She's the picture's muse and its Shiva, its reason for existing and the force that threatens to tear it apart. People who don't understand movies often speak of them as escapism, a kind of passive fantasy. Lohan's performance in The Canyons, so naked in all ways, is the ultimate retort to that kind of idiocy: To watch it is to live in the moment.

Lohan plays Tara, a woman who could be a Hollywood climber but who really, maybe, just wants to survive. The boyfriend she's latched onto is suitable only on the surface: Christian (the adult-film performer James Deen) is an egotistical trust-fund kid who dabbles in producing horror movies. For fun, he invites outsiders into his and Tara's home for three- and four-way couplings, which he captures on his cell phone.

See also: A Look Back at Lindsay Lohan's Winding List of Roles

Worth showing up for: Lohan in repose
IFC Films
Worth showing up for: Lohan in repose

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The Canyons
Directed by Paul Schrader
IFC Films
Opens August 2, IFC Center

Tara used to have a much nicer boyfriend, a stalwart, not-at-all-sleazy hunk of an actor named Ryan (Nolan Funk). She pulls some strings to get Ryan a part in one of Christian's movies, though it's not long before the current boyfriend senses that the specter of the old one hasn't quite vanished. Christian clamps down on Tara, and his possessiveness flowers into something sinister, like a hothouse Hollywood version of Liaisons Dangereuses.

The nuts and bolts of the plot are the least interesting things about The Canyons. Christian's transformation from egotistical jerk to megalomaniacal madman takes up too much of the story's real estate. (The script is by onetime literary bad boy Brett Easton Ellis.) It doesn't help that playing the heel—even such an obviously complex, messed-up heel—doesn't suit Deen, with his sexy-tech-nerd-next-door demeanor. Unlike the veteran porn actor Rocco Siffredi in the films he made with Catherine Breillat, Deen can't melt into the role, though he carries himself with a braggadocio that's something to behold.

Then again, even with all of the movie's full-frontal male nudity—lots of it—Lohan is really all you want to look at. Through most of The Canyons, she's made up à la Elizabeth Taylor circa The Sandpiper, all winged eyeliner and exaggerated lips. Yet from certain angles, she could also be a more voluptuous Natalie Wood, and the combination is stirring. Tara is a nectarine on the far side of ripening, and this isn't a story about innocence lost—she sold that off long ago. But there's a dreaminess about her that could never crystallize into hardness. When her friend Gina (Amanda Brooks) asks why she scaled back her involvement in Christian's fledgling film, Tara evades the question, and not just because Gina is Ryan's current girlfriend. Instead, she asks, "When was the last time you saw a movie that really meant something to you?"

That's Schrader's question, too. Directors like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, two of his '70s compatriots, have adapted to whatever the movie business has thrown at them and survived. Schrader hasn't made the same kinds of choices. But then, he's often made more interesting movies because of it, like the brazen 1999 romantic melodrama Forever Mine. Schrader must feel as lost in the current landscape as Tara does. In that way, they're two of a kind, and the world he's created for her here is half home sweet home and half toxic planet. Cinematographer John DeFazio makes L.A. daylight look both bleached-out and creamy. This is a place, like the Hollywood of David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, where you can live your dreams or become completely trapped—you're unlucky only if you can't tell which is which.

Schrader is a moralist, but what keeps him from being a pompous pain in the ass, as Woody Allen can be, is his capacity for regret. He doesn't delight in the nastier side of human nature; he's sorry, on behalf of all of us, that things have to be this way. And he's possibly the best director Lohan could have worked with at this point in her tenuous career.

There are people who have sympathy for Lohan, but one terrible thing about the world we live in is that there are still plenty who would love to see her fail. Schrader, for now at least, has built a protective wall around her. Recently in Film Comment he wrote of the similarities he sees between Lohan and Marilyn Monroe: "Tardiness, unpredictability, tantrums, absences, neediness, psychodrama—yes, all that, but something more, that thing that keeps you watching someone on screen, that thing you can't take your eyes off of, that magic, that mystery. That thing that made John Huston say, 'I wonder why I put myself through all this, then I go to dailies.'" Why do we put ourselves through all this? Why do we keep going to the movies, when so many of them are so heartlessly disappointing? The answer, and the challenge, is in Lohan's face. Look if you dare.

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As with aflickering, let me congratulate Stephanie Zacherek for being one of the rare reviewers to see "The Canyons" on its own terms - and not as some cypher of the sturm und drang of the circus paparazzi. The truth telling function of art, drama, and film is too often tossed under the bus,  weighed down with cliche-riven bigotry.

Schrader's vision is about contemporary Hollywood-soul corruption, much in the vein of "Mulholland Drive" two decade ago. Character's revealed do trump the plot points. Christian's "possessiveness flowers into something sinister, like a hothouse Hollywood version of Liaisons Dangereuses," indeed.

The critics own narcissistic deportments rather prove the point of this morality tale - and Stephanie's contrast of Schrader's morally centered career themes against by Spielberg and Scorsese's ingrained compromising is industrial counterpoint.

"Schrader is [indeed] a moralist" much like Hogarth's "A Harlot's Progress," both acutely  observed and tempered: "He doesn't delight in the nastier side of human nature; he's sorry, on behalf of all of us, that things have to be this way." Because Hollywood is "where you can live your dreams or become completely trapped—you're unlucky only if you can't tell which is which." Which is why Tara is its center, and Lohan inhabits her completely.

Lindsey Lohan is fortunate to have Schrader here, just as Marilyn Monroe was lucky to have John Huston in "The Misfits." Both are the poignant poster children of borderline personality disorder for their times - because like hothouse flowers, they would wilt under any other's less than indulgent hands.


"People who don't understand movies often speak of them as escapism, a kind of passive fantasy." -  Because a moviegoer looks at a film as a means of escape is somehow a misunderstanding of movies is rigid, moralizing, narrow and alienating. It tells me you don't understand how movies can be different to different people.

Mark W. Teel
Mark W. Teel

I have to admit, I still find Lindsey Lohan sexually attractive. It would probably be like sticking your dick in a bowl of mashed potatoes though.

Andre Abramowitz
Andre Abramowitz

It looks dreadful from the trailer but Paul Schrader has written some of the greatest films ever made so I'm very curious.

Barry Polis
Barry Polis

The law should leave the girl alone the f in puritanical bastards will drive this artist off a cliff


@smithalexandersmith i wasn't impressed with that, either. neither the tone nor the point being made. critics are terrified of the E word though, because their profession relies on ascribing as much cultural significance to the medium as they possibly can. personally i share stephanie's distaste for dismissing cinema as having no purpose aside from escapism, but there's also no denying that escapism is one of the medium's primary functions (as is the case with any kind of fiction), and one to which few of us are immune. many great filmmakers past and present have understood this and integrated that understanding into their films.

even so, kudos to stephanie for being one of the few to try addressing THE CANYONS on its own terms, rather than applying conventional standards to a film that clearly intends to subvert those standards. pointing toward the levels of artifice, stilted acting, '80s porn vibe etc is fine, but it should be the start of the conversation and not the end. half the canon is made up of filmmakers who revelled in their own kinds of artifice and stylisation.


@Mark W. Teel With language like that I don't see how every girl isn't your oyster.


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