Part art object, part softcore thriller, The Canyons is the latest entry in this year’s cycle of gaze-into-the-abyss movies (see also: Spring Breakers, Pain & Gain, The Bling Ring). However, unlike the earlier films, it could never be mistaken for a celebration of vapid materialism; it’s chilly, severe, and, like much of Paul Schrader’s work, moralistic. Spring Breakers, Pain & Gain, and The Bling Ring all acknowledge the pleasure their characters derive from breaking rules and putting on expensive clothes; in The Canyons, there’s no pleasure—only power struggles disguised as sex.
Written by novelist Bret Easton Ellis, The Canyons tells a circular story about a wealthy L.A. couple, played by Lindsay Lohan and porn star James Deen, whose kinky sex lives betray a profound personal emptiness. After Deen unwittingly casts Lohan’s ex, Nolan Funk, in a low-budget horror movie, their relationship begins to unravel, giving way to mutual paranoia.
Though Lohan’s shattered-mirror performance—where every cigarette and crying fit reflects some piece of her troubled public persona—has attracted the most attention, it’s really Deen who provides the movie with its center. As a sociopath, he’s eerily convincing, especially when his voice takes on a playful, Aziz Ansari-like cadence; The Canyons is ultimately a movie about his need to maintain emotional power by any means necessary, with Lohan slipping further and further into passive victim mode with each scene. Funk, on the other hand, is a non-presence, both a perfect conduit for the movie’s low-rent vision of L.A. emptiness and its weakest link.
With its self-conscious clichés and arch dialogue (“I’m really sorry I didn’t congratulate you on starting your own P.R. company”), Ellis’ script seems to invite cartoonish over-stylization—an invitation that Schrader’s jagged, jarring direction resists at every opportunity. Sometimes the result is awkward, sometimes it’s striking, and sometimes it’s both, as in the opening scene, an incongruous homage to Yasujirō Ozu—complete with actors looking into the camera as they address each other—that is interrupted midway through by an unmotivated overhead tracking shot.
The Canyons is, in other words, a movie that simply doesn’t want to work in a conventional sense. There’s something brazen, maybe even admirable, about Schrader’s mismatched camera setups, or the way he uses wide-angle lenses to cram as much empty space into the frame as possible. Schrader made his name with feverish portraits of self-loathing and self-destruction—his screenplays for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, his fractured biopic Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters—but here he adopts a tone so cold that it is becomes deliberately off-putting.