The Canyons is neither as radically good or as notoriously bad as one would want it to be. It's not the disaster that some critics call it - or that some Lindsay Lohan haters want it to be. Yet, by the end, it is nothing more than a competent film, which is pretty much what it seemed it would be from the time it was presented by Paul Schrader and Bret Easton Ellis on Kickstarter.com looking for funds.
Part of the issue is that the male lead , James Deen, doesn't have the acting chops or the screen presence to make his role effective. He's, of course, known for other talents and it shows. He's no Richard Gere; an actor I would not call great but one whom kept us engaged in American Gigolo.
Lohan, on the other hand, can act and does have an interesting presence on screen. Director Paul Schrader has been quoted saying that Lohan - although tough to work with - has that extra something that shows in the dailies and that's why he hired her. But that something isn't of the variety one gets from, say, Jennifer Jason Leigh. Lohan gets a passing grade for attendance but she doesn't really stretch her abilities much here.
The other issue is the script. This being a Bret Easton Ellis script we get nasty, clean cut characters romping around Los Angeles acting badly. But it all feels rather flat and uninteresting. Nasty characters can be good fun but you need a trashy element or something more compelling than simple jealousy and deceit driving the narrative. One of my favorite Schrader films is The Comfort of Strangers. In that film there is a really eerie, evil quality lurking beneath the surface that eventually boils over. In this film, however, when the violence comes it feels cliché. In that film the Christopher Walken character is a control freak but you can feel his magnetic pull. Once he has you in his grasp you won't get away. In this film James Deen is a control freak but he had no power. He's just a punk with a trust fund living in a Malibu hills mansion. He seems very easy to ignore. Lohan, however, plays a character very much dependent of him. Yet it's just not believable.
The film opens with a series of photos of closed, run down movie theatres. Its a melancholic, creepy opening that nicely accompanies the dead souls on screen. Each day [or chapter] in the film is also preceded by a similar photo. What is Schrader telling us? Is the death of cinema = the death of Los Angeles and hence the death of our collective selves? Perhaps. But despite this movies are still being made. The story itself revolves around the making of a low budget monster movie, which most of the characters are preparing to shoot out of town. And then there is Lohan and Deen who frequently shoot three and four way sex scenes with their phone. This is undoubtedly the hapless, dead-end future of cinema.
Schrader was raise a Calvinist and then turned away yet he hasn't completely divorced himself from some of the tenants about evil in the world. His films tend to exhibit a low howl warning about empty lives and the deceit, paranoia, cruel mind games and violence that can arise from having no moral anchor. And when salvation comes it's often in odd or ironic ways. In his world the good guys usually don't exist and the bad guys often find a way to win. In this film, however, it's easy to feel indifferent to the entire mess transpiring on screen. By the end you may feel it would have been more fulfilling to just hang out in the Malibu hills and watch the trees blow in the wind.