On paper, the director Paul Schrader and the writer Bret Easton Ellis seem like a match made in frozen hell. The work of both men is cold around the heart, exploring violence and neurasthenic sexual deviance. It’s possibly no coincidence that the tombstone achievements for this pair are Taxi Driver (Schrader’s script) and American Psycho (Ellis’ novel). They have now collaborated on a microbudget indie film, The Canyons, which has gained some notoriety from the off-camera antics of its star, Lindsay Lohan, and the travails she caused the production. LiLo, in truth, isn’t the movie’s problem; she often seems like the only committed, professional performer onscreen, especially next to porn star James Deen (né Bryan Sevilla), who plays her movie-producer boyfriend.
Ellis likes complicated love/sex triangles, and so the central couple, Tara (Lohan) and Christian (Deen), regularly engage in casual swinger sex with people they find on the internet. Both have old flames; Tara used to be in love with Ryan (Nolan Gerard Funk), a struggling wannabe actor who has a part in Christian’s upcoming horror movie shooting in New Mexico. Christian doesn’t mind if Tara has sex with someone in front of him, but if she lies to him about seeing someone behind his back, that infuriates him. He’s a control freak and also a manipulative jerk, to say the least.
Ellis usually writes this sort of thing with deadpan wit, but Schrader approaches the material in his standard dour, puritanical setting. The Canyons offers plenty of sex and nudity, filmed by Schrader in the so-cold-it’s-meant-to-be-hot mode familiar from American Gigolo, Cat People and Auto Focus. But sex for Ellis isn’t an occasion for desolation and shame; it’s all a power game. In brief, Ellis and Schrader bring out the worst in each other, and this production simply doesn’t have the money to achieve the heartless dry-ice, lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-undead look it really needs. A lot of it seems to have been shot in someone’s borrowed upscale L.A. home. What violence there is unfolds elsewhere: You can film here, guys, but don’t get blood on the tiles.
There’s a great deal of spying and stalking and message-checking. People look at their phones instead of at their conversation partners whenever they can. A skipped heartbeat of dread develops when Tara gets texts from someone she doesn’t know, who offers cryptic information; Ellis got a lot of chilling mileage out of that trope in Imperial Bedrooms, his belated sequel to Less Than Zero. But the texts just lead to a character who’s treated contemptuously, as an afterthought. The Canyons packs little of the extremity and shock that mark Ellis and Schrader at their most indelible. It feels like, and in fact was, an on-the-cheap project they entered into in haste when an earlier film — the intriguing-sounding class-warfare thriller Bait — fell through. The movie was financed partly on Kickstarter, and everyone worked for peanuts. I see very little passion, though, very little animating emotion to explain why the film had to be made, why the story needed to be told.
James Deen, I think, has more screen time than Lohan does, and Schrader uses him as a found object the same way Steven Soderbergh used Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience. Deen has porn-star swagger and an instinct toward domination — he moves comfortably, occupies other people’s space — but when he opens his mouth it’s strictly amateur hour. He doesn’t have a trained actor’s voice; he has the sound of, well, a performer in shot-on-videotape porno, flat and artificial. The other, lesser-known actors are competent but can’t do much with Ellis’ stylized, sometimes overexplicit dialogue. Lohan, meanwhile, throws off all sorts of morose, bitter energy that keeps us riveted to her but doesn’t always seem connected to the character she’s supposed to be playing. All of this happens in an off-Hollywood milieu that’s decently appointed but a little musty, more than a little depressing. Those hoping for something wild and crazy from the bad boys Ellis and Schrader, or even a good old hearty train wreck from Lohan a la her much-derided Liz and Dick from earlier this year, will look here in vain. A cult may form around it, but it’s bound to be a very tiny and cynical cult.