Judge Gordon Sullivan says if this were shot in Pittsburgh, it'd have been called The Potholes.
It's not The Hills.
Harlan Ellison once claimed to be a big fan of Judge Judy. Of the many things he learned from the show—including, he said, a lot about the way people speak—the main lesson is that no matter how people dress it up, when asked why they did something, the answer is always, "It seemed like a good idea at the time." When we look back at The Canyons in ten years' time, that will be will be the only defense: it seemed like a good idea at the time. Take a novelist who has always worshipped Hollywood and eager to write a script about his home (Bret Easton Ellis), add a writer/director whose best films are likely behind him (Paul Schrader), throw in a star struggling with image problems and recovering from substance abuse (Lindsay Lohan), and cast her opposite a porn star making his debut in so-called "mainstream" filmmaking (James Deen). The result should at least be an interesting film, and certainly one with the potential to be amazing. Instead, a lot of viewers were disappointed by the lackluster "thriller," whether because of its glacial pace or the inept filmmaking. And yet the film has its champions as well—though it will no doubt be a failure to most, it's certain to earn cult status, helped along by The Canyons (Bu-ray) Unrated Director's Cut.
Facts of the Case
Christian (James Deen) is a trust-fund kid in Hollywood who wants to be in the producing game. He's funding a project, but when he finds out the lead (Nolan Funk, House at the End of the Street) is having an affair with his girlfriend (Lindsay Lohan, Mean Girls), it starts a round of mind games and violence throughout LA
By the usual standards of Hollywood films, The Canyons is a failure. It's supposed to be a "thriller" where Christian and Tara battle for sexual and emotional control, with violence always threatened until it explodes in the finale. If that's the case, then The Canyons is the least tense thriller I've ever seen.There's no suspense. Because everyone is so blasé about everything, there's no sense of threat or danger. It's also supposed to be an "erotic" thriller as well, but even with a porn actor as a lead, the film struggles to generate heat. Sure, there's a good bit of sex, but it's emotionally vacuous, dead-eyed sex that's unlikely to appeal to most viewers.
This film also brings the worst performances so far from any of the major players. Bret Easton Ellis is one of the contemporary masters of voice; he can breathe life into a character with half a page of monologue in his novels. Here, the dialogue is shockingly interchangeable for everyone involved, as if they're all the same person talking to themselves. Schrader is working on a very tight budget, with limited locations, but both his direction of the actors (who apparently fought him every step of the way) and the visuals is surprisingly faceless. There's no magic here like there was in Schrader's earlier work. Given all her troubles, viewers should expect Lindsay Lohan to be a bit off here, but she's surprisingly bad in her delivery, often reminding me of Birdemic in her stilted delivery. The biggest disappointment is James Deen. I've seen interviews with him, and he seems like a down-to-earth, charming guy. None of the charisma he's known for in the industry is present here. Sure he's playing a manipulative jerk, but there's little of the spark that would make him initially attractive on display here.
This is also no way to release a Blu-ray. I know that pretty much everybody is disappointed with the way the film turned out: Schrader fired Lohan, Ellis has blamed Schrader, and Lohan wasn't comfortable acting opposite a porn star. Still, if everybody could have put their differences and disappointments aside, The Canyons could have been really great. Ellis is a great talker, as is Schrader, and the movie has a lot of back story to cover, from the initial idea to crowd-funding the budget and finding many of the actors via internet-enabled auditions. That's a lot to chew over, but instead we get 6 minutes of behind the scenes footage and another 9 minutes of interviews. They're both fine as they are, but this is a film that deserves so much more, and the film itself could be made so much more palatable to many viewers with all of the context and skull-sweat that went into it made clear.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Sure, The Canyons is bad if you approach it as a typical Hollywood thriller. However, there's definitely something mesmerizing about the film. Part of that is the train-wreck quality of the whole affair. That this much talent went this wrong is almost baffling, and watching the film looking for clues as to how the horror came about is like a little game. The film also catches something important about the state of culture in 2013. The shots of derelict movie theaters in LA can feel a bit heavy handed, and yet that heavy handedness feels appropriate. The deadness that the characters portray, the lack of emotion is somehow compelling. Whether its compelling because it says something about what it's like to be alive in 2012 or because it's-so-bad-it's-good, I can't say yet. Still, The Canyons is a film that's hard to turn away from.
On the technical side, The Canyons (Blu-ray) does a fine job. The film was shot digitally and on the cheap, so the overall look of the film is kind of dull and a bit dark. In that respect, the 2.35:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer seems true to intention. Detail isn't stunning, and neither is color saturation, but those facts only help the film's grimy texture. Black levels aren't very deep and crush is sometimes evident, but that seems to be the fault of low light during shooting rather than a bad encode. The DTS-HD 5.1 audio track fares a bit better. Dialogue is well-captured, presented cleanly from the front. The surrounds don't get much use, but the score by Brendan Canning (of Broken Social Scene) sounds rich and detailed.
Judged as an erotic thriller made by famous Hollywood names, The Canyons is a total failure. However, it's also a mesmerizing look at emotionless relationships and the vacuity of contemporary Hollywood. It will likely be voted the worst film of 2013, but a film people will still be talking about in 2023. Though I wish it had a better slate of extras, The Canyons (Blu-ray) is worth a rental for those intrigued by the promise of a strange film.
Guilty, but it's supposed to be.
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