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‘The Canyons’ is a lurid black hole of nothingness that somehow works

‘The Canyons’ is a lurid black hole of nothingness that somehow works

The Canyons poster

The Canyons
Directed by Paul Schrader
Written by Bret Easton Ellis
USA, 2013

Director Paul Schrader and writer Bret Easton Ellis’ The Canyons is a lurid black hole of nothingness. Nothing people. Nothing places. Nothing futures. The film opens with varying shots of broken down and decrepit movie theaters, suggesting a permanent modern lapse in our ability to get away from our phones and computers and enjoy stories in the cinema. We circle back to this idea when two female characters are talking over lunch about a third of the way through the film. “When was the last time you saw a movie that meant something to you?” a character asks. The conversation is quickly reduced to the basic idea that both women couldn’t fathom the idea of going to a movie and being away from their boyfriends that long.

In all facets, The Canyons plays out like an MTV sitcom except it features dicks and boobs. Affairs, deception, and the idea of a private and interesting life are all but gone as this particular portrait of LA is etched in a catatonic state of hazy aimlessness. In this world, the men are either struggling young actors or trust-fund douchebags with ties to Hollywood who say “babe” way too often. The women lounge around in the sun with cigarettes and a drink, waiting around for their particular love interest to come home and screw them. The film adheres to boring conversations between couples that never really excel past who each has slept with, who each has just texted, and various other inconsequential exchanges.

What The Canyons does achieve amidst its sluggish bout of superficiality and baseline artifice, is its straight-faced plunge into common cliché. Schrader and Ellis are doing some eye-winking throughout, but this particular culture critique which falls in line with Spring Breakers and supposedly The Bling Ring, is entirely sincere and willing to swim in the muck and trash of its own cruelty. It’s all an endless cycle – a bleak void that swallows up thinly realized dreams and any sense of erotic interplay. Even the sex here is dull and banal. It’s not intended to arouse past a certain point, but exists solely in a facile manner. In many ways, The Canyons is a distant relative to David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, both in concept (though The Canyons is far more artificial) and in the depiction of LA as a prison-land which offers no escape.

the canyons

We follow two couples: Tara (Lindsay Lohan) and Christian (adult porn star James Deen), and Ryan (Nolan Gerard Funk) and Gina (Amanda Brooks) — none of whom are particularly interesting, but each seems to occupy a familiar space of empathy which at first seems impossible and ridiculous given their deplorable qualities (save for Gina, who has the least to do). Christian is a domineering and jealous producer of some sort whose life is tied to daddy’s trust fund. We have witnessed some variation of this guy even if we haven’t been to LA. He wears dark dress shirts and tucks them into his jeans. He pours shots of tequila with a silly devilish grin. He’s also crazy and sadistic. His girlfriend of one year is Tara, a queen of riches who is willing to engage in “couple’s sex” at the request of her boyfriend. Lohan is surprisingly serviceable and often good here, portraying Tara as some worn out and desperate women caught between a dude who offers security and a past flame (Ryan) who is still deeply in love with her.

This all comes together as Ryan is jockeying for the lead role in a small throwaway movie that Christian has financed. The cruel betrayals and mind games that follow never seem to register because how could they? The Canyons is far from entertaining, but somehow alluring in its anti-thriller, anti-drama approach. Violence does ensue, but not necessarily in a manner we anticipated or with parties we expected. Only in The Canyons does a character check themselves out in the mirror right before killing someone. It’s subtle but hilarious. What does register is how slight these depictions of “love” are. This is where Ellis’ screenplay excels, even when it’s caught in a state of stagnation; these people can’t really exist or function without a role to play. “We’re all actors” says Christian in a brief exchange with his therapist played by Gus Van Sant, a sign that the film’s world would cave in on itself if its characters had to exist outside of shopping and fucking. The dialogue sometimes possesses a dual role in its relation to the characters and the act of sex. “He’s gonna pull out, he’s gonna pull out, he’s gonna fucking pull out.” It’s all sort of charming and smug, stupid and weightless.

So then what does it all add up to? It’s about Lohan’s raspy voice and laugh after puffing on a cigarette. It’s about sneaking off to sleep with a busty yoga instructor and then later on visiting her under completely difference circumstances. It’s about a lunch tab being billed to a production company. It’s about receiving and responding to texts on your widescreen TV. It’s about creeping on Facebook and hacking into bank accounts. It’s about a straight male being sucked off in order to keep a role. It’s about promising your “lover” that you will get away with murdering her “lover.” I’m not sure that any of it matters, but this is The Canyons. “Nobody has a private life anymore.”

— Ty Landis

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