THE CANYONS is a good, bad movie, 2014’s first cult classic. In time, it will play late night at certain independent cinemas to audiences primed to laugh at certain inappropriate moments: the revelation of the fake-looking murder victim; the appearances of ‘hoodie guy’ (Jarod Einsohn); the concluding dinner date conversation where two characters (audio-ed out) sitting next to women have fake ‘movie extra’ exchange (pretending to talk); the portentous (read: ill-advised) bringing into focus of a stern-looking portrait in a psychiatrist’s office; the crotch shots; the main character nearly awakening her boyfriend by knocking over a sealed bottle of water, but catching it just in time; and the final stare at the camera. Not to mention the line that ends ‘if you see him again, I am going to kill you and get away with it’. And the exchange: ‘how do you know he’s a real psychiatrist?’ ‘I googled him.’
‘They must have known how terrible it was,’ said one viewer at the late night screening I attended. No, ‘they’ didn’t. I haven’t seen THE ROOM, reportedly the worst (modern) film ever made, but I imagine it is like this.
Written by Bret Easton Ellis (LESS THAN ZERO, AMERICAN PSYCHO) and directed by Paul Schrader (AMERICAN GIGOLO, MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS), THE CANYONS is a sincere piece of work made with a soft-porn movie cast. It is given notoriety by the casting of Lindsay Lohan as Tara, or ‘terror’ as the name is frequently pronounced, in the leading role. For Lohan, the film might have represented some form of career rehabilitation after her multiple run-ins with the law. Knowing that Lohan is a convicted shoplifter, you cannot watch her casting desperate looks around a Century City shopping mall with a straight face. Unbeknownst to her, Tara is being followed; she looks guilty. We see her lie multiple times without a conscience and all of this takes on a new meaning because of our off-screen knowledge of Lohan. The film is a cruel critique of a fallen star; it’s like watching Mickey Rourke prior to THE WRESTLER in a bad action movie: you know why he is doing it, he looks bad in it and you wish he just wouldn’t.
It begins with a montage of photographs of derelict multiplexes. Dust has settled over the buildings, letters are missing. We see the inside of one auditorium with ripped seats. The inference is that cinema-going is dying. THE CANYONS represents an ‘on-demand’ form of filmmaking – it was partly financed through Kickstarter with one name listed twice in the closing thanks (he was keen). People make movies with their (Nokia) phones for personal consumption. At one point, Tara asks a woman, ‘when did you last see a movie?’ ‘I went to a premiere.’ ‘That doesn’t count – when did you last choose to see a film in a cinema?’ Schrader has never had a mass movie hit as director, though he has written TAXI DRIVER (modern classic) and collaborated with Martin Scorsese subsequently on RAGING BULL (not a hit at the time, but another classic), THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (made its money back, but let down by shoddy production values) and BRINGING OUT THE DEAD (good opening weekend, thanks to the pulling power of Nicolas Cage in the leading role, but fizzled out soon afterwards). Schrader’s work as a director has led to diminishing commercial returns, though his film about a male escort, THE WALKER, was seen as a return to form. Bret Easton Ellis’ last screenplay was for the under-seen THE INFORMERS, another airless Los Angeles, youth drugs and crime story with Mickey Rourke as a desperate kidnapper in a supporting role. Rourke was as morbidly fascinating in THE INFORMERS as Lohan is here – it should have been called ‘Out-of-formers’.
Nominally, THE CANYONS about the pre-production of a low-budget horror film to be shot in Mexico. Christian (James Deen) is a young man with a trust fund who backs the movie, if only to get his (unseen) father off his back. He has agreed to cast Ryan (Nolan Funk), a friend of his former assistant, Gina (Amanda Brooks) in the lead role, after Gina was lobbied by Christian’s girlfriend, Tara. The talk is superficial until Christian reveals that he and Tara have an open relationship. He makes the films he’s interested in with ‘this’, indicating his mobile phone. These involve inviting strangers over to have sex with Tara. Tara doesn’t object; she sees it as a way of keeping her man – a Los Angeles thing, I suppose. At no point do we specifically see Christian reviewing the footage, though at one point he is on the phone when Tara begins a text conversation shown on a TV screen; the phone is almost a McGuffin. The real point is that Tara is the sole recurring cast member in a cinema for one.
The twist is that Tara is Ryan’s former lover. They lived together, after both moved to LA struggling to get work. They broke up before she hooked up with Christian. On criteria such as beauty, intelligence and personality, you can’t see why Christian would choose Tara over other women, except, perhaps, she is more masochistic. She appears to be attempting to transcend her masochism; you sense that this was Lohan’s aim as well. After all, Schrader is the author of ‘Transcendental Style in Film’, written during his ‘Paulette’ (acolyte to Pauline Kael) movie critic days. Incidentally, Schrader’s book was a study of Ozu, who is not as you might think, Arsenal’s most expensive acquisition to date (that would be Mezit Ozil), but the noted director of TOKYO STORY.
Tara and the cash-strapped Ryan are having an affair, which Tara wants to break off, mainly because Ryan does not have a regular wage, works part-time in a bar but needs extra shifts (his boss is gay and there is the suggestion that Ryan slept with him). Christian is suspicious; he really doesn’t know why Gina would fight for him to be in the movie and suspects something. So he has Tara followed by ‘hoodie guy’. Meanwhile, Christian continues his affair with Cynthia (Tenielle Houston), a keep-fit instructor who is the sort of woman who answers the door naked except for a bathrobe – this must also be a Los Angeles thing. Sex inevitably follows, though there is something Cynthia does that puts Christian off. He tells her that he thinks Tara is having an affair. Cue the unintended hilarity of the ‘how do you know?’ exchange where Christian doesn’t admit to having Tara followed but Cynthia guesses he is a creep before showing him the door. For good! (Not really.)
Gina and Tara have an alfresco lunch, engineered by Christian. He wants to know more about her relationship with Ryan. The way the scene is photographed, a UPS truck appears to be heading towards Gina and Tara as they converse, before turning. This creates an artificial and distracting sense of danger. A good director would make this count, but it appears to be an unintended consequence of not carrying out camera tests at chosen locations. You sense the film was made with a minimal crew on the hoof, with plenty of favours being begged.
Tara won’t leave Christian because she doesn’t want to return to a life on the make. She doesn’t give the ‘Christian is a good man’ speech but you think it is coming. Meanwhile, Christian sets out getting Ryan kicked off the movie, through his other producer who when we see him is playing with a computer generated image of a bipedal monster, one that appears to have a phallus that moves between front and back; we are never far from the soft porn aesthetic. Christian strong-arms the man into summoning Ryan for a late night meeting; he will be fired from the movie unless he sleeps with the guy. The indecent proposal is made, but Ryan responds by saying ‘let’s do it now’ undoing his zipper.
Machinations ensue. Cynthia meets with Tara and tells her to get out of the relationship. She explains how Cynthia was made to have sex with other men just as Tara does. Once, Christian drugged her and invited a bunch of men to have sex with her against her consent. ‘You mean rohypnol’, curses Tara when Cynthia calls the drug roofies. Tara counters that Cynthia is making it up ‘that’s such a girl thing to do,’ she adds; another quotable future-cult line. Nevertheless, Cynthia has convinced Tara that she is in danger. ‘That’s the best acting I’ve done in ages,’ she tells Ryan. The problem is Tenielle Houston’s delivery is not what you would call good acting.
Christian arranges for his ‘IT guy’ to ‘hack’ into Tara’s Facebook – for some reason the audience found this funny – and then into Ryan’s bank account. Tara passes him on the way out without speaking to him. ‘Who was that?’ she asks Christian, to explosive laughter from the movie audience.
The film ends with Christian agreeing to let Tara go in exchange for something. Before that, we see Ryan confronting ‘hoodie guy’ after leaving Amoeba Records, which looks like a cool to visit. Ryan is set up as a murderer, though one without motivation, and there is a one-year on coda. The other distinguishing features are a straight-faced cameo from Gus Van Sant as Dr Campbell, Christian’s father-appointed psychiatrist and a sex scene in which Tara makes a man orally pleasure Christian; that’s what she wants to watch. I wondered at some point whether ‘The Bling Ring’ would turn up during a group sex scene and Christian would say, ‘this is not what it looks like – but it could be’; something for the remake, I suppose.
THE CANYONS deserves to be considered the first cult classic of 2014. When film distributors are sniffy about films funded through Kickstarter as examples of movies that only a small number of people – friends of the producers – want to see, they might hold this up as an example. The March release of the crowd-funded VERONICA MARS movie might change all that.
Reviewed at Hackney Picturehouse, Screen 4, Saturday 4 January 2014; full house