With Paul Schrader directing, Brett Easton Ellis penning the screenplay, Lindsay Lohan starring and porn stud James Deen as the leading man, the erotic thriller "The Canyons" seemed like a dicey proposition from the outset. With the exception of Deen, the careers of the others have certainly seen better days; "The Canyons" is unlikely to herald a reversal of fortune for anyone involved. Like a dessicated amalgam of its creators greatest hits--think Schrader's "American Gigolo"/"The Comfort of Strangers"/"Auto Focus" meets Ellis' "American Psycho"/"Rules of Attraction"/"Less Than Zero"--"The Canyons" feels redundant and oddly unsexy. Neither erotic nor a thriller, the film could have been much better in the hands of someone like Brian de Palma, who usually excels at this type of campy, melodramatic trash (except for his unfortunate remake of Alain Corneau's "Love Crime"). To be sure, "The Canyons" would have been a better film, had Schrader and Ellis infused it with even the slightest grain of humor, but they spin their dark take with a deadly earnestness that robs the film of any trace of suspense or pleasure. In the past, Ellis has evinced a snarky, gleefully twisted sense of malice that enlivened even the sketchiest projects but in "The Canyons", it's hard to believe that he actually wrote anything other than a very basic outline of the plot. Certainly, the dialogue is such that the actors often seem to be winging it, ad libbing and spouting scripted bits on the fly. (The atrocious dialogue and barely-there script notwithstanding, Ellis probably still would have made a better director for this material than Schrader).
The acting is not as terrible as I expected it to be. Although there were, reportedly, problems during filming with the notoriously difficult Lohan, I thought she gave a convincing performance as Tara, a failed actress and paramour of trust fund baby/producer wannabe Christian (James Deen). As La Lohan's life has been endless fodder for scandal and gossip lo these many years, it's somewhat disconcerting to watch her playing what seems to be a version of herself. Her fear and desperation seem real, and it's difficult, in this case, to separate the actress from the role she's playing. James Deen, on the other hand, projects the perfect amount of jaded callowness as a spoiled, murderous brat. At first glance, his performance seemed wooden and withdrawn, but the more I watched him, the more I realized that's exactly how some of these guys act in real life: completely self-absorbed and indifferent to anyone else (until the threat of being abandoned pops up). However, there's no real onscreen chemistry between Deen and Lohan, and that's a problem. Christian is supposed to have this overpowering passion for Tara, and even though his "passion" is all about control, it's all talk, all part of the script that doesn't work. Since the role of Christian is obviously stunt casting, real-life porn star, Deen, doffs his duds for some full frontal nudity (so the audience doesn't feel cheated) and Lohan doesn't skimp on flaunting bare breasts (nor does the rest of the cast) but, as I said before, "The Canyons" just isn't sexy. In supporting roles, Nolan Funk, Amanda Brooks and Tenille Houston seem like they wandered over from "Melrose Place"--take that however you want, but I don't mean it as high praise. Director Gus Van Sant, who should have known better, is on hand for all of two minutes as Christian's psychiatrist, but that's not enough to elevate this movie into high, or low, art.
It's also worth noting that John DeFazio's photography does not help the movie. How is it possible to make the hills around Malibu look so dingy? I realize that the budget was very low, but really? Were they going for this low-rent look? Old episodes of "Hart-to-Hart" look better than this movie.
There's a murder in the movie, which could have been interesting, but isn't, and there's a lot of talking on cell phones and texting, all of which echo real life, and all of which bog down the movie in the boring minutiae of real life. "The Canyons" isn't really interesting enough to be a terrible movie, it's just a blah movie, a bad idea that could have made a terrific terrible movie with the right writer and director.