Film review: The Canyons, Venice Film Festival

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Paul Schrader’s The Canyons arrived at the Venice Film Festival trailing controversy in its wake.

The casting of troubled star Lindsay Lohan opposite porn actor James Deen in a low-budget pulp thriller provoked both fascination and derision from the US media, who delighted in the idea that this was a train crash of a movie with Lohan in the middle of the wreckage. The Canyons certainly isn’t the most polished film that Schrader has ever made but in its own sleazy way, it makes compelling viewing.

Lohan herself is almost unrecognizable from the bright-eyed child star we remember from The Parent Trap. Her character Tara is ostensibly in her mid 20s but looks far older. The lighting and production design do nothing to make her seem remotely glamorous. She behaves here like an ageing diva on leave from a Tennessee Williams play. Even so, her star quality isn’t completely dimmed. Lohan is far more experienced than her co-stars, who seem lightweight by comparison. She conveys effectively enough her character’s doubts and insecurities as well as her haughtiness and sense of entitlement. What her role lacks is any opportunity for humour or levity. In its own anxious, grimly intense way, this is an effective performance.

Brett Easton Ellis’ screenplay offers us three main characters all as mendacious and narcissistic as one another. There is Christian (Deen), a wealthy, sociopathic LA-based movie producer living off a trust fund and preparing a new film in which young hunk Ryan (Nolan Gerard Funk) will star. What Christian doesn’t realise, at least at first, is that his girlfriend Tara is still in love with Ryan.

When he was in his pomp making the similarly themed American Gigolo (1980) with Richard Gere, Schrader had the best technicians in Hollywood at his disposal. Here, he is working on a shoestring – and it shows. The film has all the production values of an episode of Neighbours or some other low-budget soap opera. Deen is convincingly nasty and manipulative as Christian but has little of the screen presence of the actors Schrader has worked with in the past.

Some early scenes –  Deen and Lohan meeting Ryan and his girlfriend in a restaurant, Lohan and Deen in their swanky LA house – are banal in the extreme. The sex scenes, in particular the four-way encounter that comes at a pivotal moment in the story, are prurient and clumsily shot. The film’s shortcomings are very evident. Nonetheless, The Canyons has a relentless narrative drive that rekindles memories of old, low-budget Hollywood B noir. Everybody is double crossing everybody else. Even Ryan, who initially seems vaguely sympathetic, is prepared to cheat and compromise to get ahead.

There is a sourness evident throughout. Schrader opens with a montage of movie theatres that are boarded up and have gone to seed. In one sequence, Lohan asks her lunch companion when was the last time she went to see a film. The companion answers evasively. Schrader is constantly dropping hints that cinema is a dying art form and this is why he has been reduced to making a movie on the quick like this. It is easy to accuse him of cynicism both in casting and in his choice of subject matter. Nonetheless, this isn’t the disaster that its critics have claimed. For all its formal shoddiness, it is an effective thriller with a very dark heart. If the budget had been bigger and more care had been taken, he and Lohan would surely have avoided the catcalls.

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