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“The Canyons” isn’t exactly a good movie. In fact, at times it’s laughably bad. But it’s never uninteresting. There’s something tragic and wasted about it, like a baby born with all of its limbs broken. The sex scenes are lit to resemble an old bruise, while the digital sunlight renders the cast a translucent shade of autopsy-gray.
Maybe that’s why I found it so striking.
The story is a dull rehash of a “Melrose Place” episode: young people cheat on each other, then text about it until someone dies. It’s a joyless, airless, pantless film that would feel right at home on late-night cable. Bret Easton Ellis’s dialog is probably the weakest thing about it. Everyone sounds like an idiotic douchebag the second they open their mouths. The script is barely functional enough to keep the picture creeping towards an anticlimax.
What matters here is the funereal mood, the vibe of moral decay and inner blight that director Paul Schrader has specialized in for almost 40 years. Unfortunately, this time it’s difficult to tell how much he actually cares. Schrader used to turn icy dispassion into vibrant art. Here he seems rather bored by it. “The Canyons” is sorta like a brand new carpet. It’s visually bold, factory fresh and ultra-clean, but emits a toxic ‘off-gas’ smell if you get too close.
I don’t really know what to make of porn star James Deen’s mainstream feature debut. He seems cold and a little bit lost, like a sexy, high-tech mannequin who wandered away from an Abercrombie display window. My advice would be for him to lighten up, grow some pubes and choose roles that require a pulse, not just a schlong.
As for Lindsay Lohan, I felt somewhat bad for her whenever she was on screen. Puffy and sloe-eyed, with a raspy voice that sounds like the Devil in “The Exorcist,” she’s not well served by her director, the movie or the high-waist control panties she’s costumed in most of the time. This probably isn’t going to be the career comeback she’s looking for. And yet there are times when, seemingly out of nowhere, she comes scarily to life, inhabiting her troubled character to such a powerful degree that you can easily see what made her a star in the first place. These fleeting moments add an unexpected degree of poignancy to the moribund action.
So, considering all that’s wrong with it, why didn’t I hate “The Canyons”? Probably because, in spite of everything, it’s not obnoxious. It’s not loud or ugly. In fact, it’s almost thoughtful at times. This is a film at war with itself. Much of it seems weirdly artificial, yet every so often it feels painfully human. At the screening I attended, Schrader’s post-film Q&A helped win me over. He’s so playfully grumpy and knowingly naughty. After hearing him speak, I couldn’t wait to see it again.
I’ve watched this gloomy ode to texting & humping twice since then, and my appreciation for it has deepened enough for me to call it essential viewing.