It is hard to review a film that has been so widely criticised by the majority of film critics: If you agree, then you run the risk of seemingly following the pack; if you disagree then you run the risk of being smugly contrary. It makes it even worse when the film is written by one of your own personal literary heroes. And I've had this film on my radar for months
I’ve been a massive fan of Bret Easton Ellis’ work for nearly 15 years. His ever-widening fictitious universe is wonderfully complex and the experience of reading (and rereading) his fascinating novels is incredibly rewarding due to the strange boundaries of new each book. Characters reappear in different books having relationships with unexpected people, and his world is full of casual drugs and casual sex. The dominant theme that flows throughout seems to be ironic and ambivalent misunderstanding between friends and enemies.
The Canyons is the story of trust-fund rich twenty-something Christian (James Deen) who is funding a movie that his girlfriend Tara (Lindsay Lohan) is loosely involved with. The lead role in the film has been promised to Ryan (Nolan Funk), who is dating Christian’s assistant Gina (Amanda Brookes). We first meet the four over an expensive looking dinner where Christian reveals that he likes to introduce random couples (‘hook-ups’) he has found online into his and Tara’s sex life. This seems to upset Ryan somewhat, and we soon find out that he has been having an affair with Tara. As Christian begins to suspect the affair he becomes increasingly paranoid towards Tara and the motivations behind producing the movie.
The film weaves in and out of different young film-industry-types in typical Ellis style, with plenty of obvious satire about the prevelance of mobile phones in modern culture and the cruelty of the acting/casting world. Schrader keeps the camera still or smoothly gliding mostly around minimal Californian architecture. There are very few shots of nature, unless it’s creeping over the wall next to a private pool, and the film is mainly internal or at night with a pulsating soundtrack from Me & John.
The film has an inbuilt paradox that I think led it to being hated by some critics: to grasp this film it is important to consider the intertextuality, yet by only concentrating on this then some viewers trapped themselves and were approaching the film the wrong way. The movie that is being made within the narrative of The Canyons is under strain because the lead character is miscast through favouritism.
This then became the main criticism for The Canyons: that Lindsay Lohan was herself miscast – this either led people to wrongly misinterpret this as ‘a Lindsay Lohan movie’, or it led to criticism from people who thought it was cynical timing to cast her in a racy role whilst she still had the tabloids chasing her. The first response is a problem with simplified typecasting and is not the fault of the film, and the second response is a weird kind of patronising patriarchy that insists that young women only make films when their lives are squeaky clean for the benefit of conservative onlookers.
There is a great postmodern line in the film where Tara asks Gina, “Do you really like movies?” This may feel like a very natural line for Lindsay Lohan to say – but she didn’t say it, her character did. This is the kind of writer that Bret Easton Ellis is, and I’m certain that he was aware of these fan/audience/critic reactions that were going to arise.
Another reason that the film might have misconnected with American audiences might have been the simple reason that American Youth have moved on from stories about rich kids from L.A. in a time of economic recession. But this doesn’t really resonate seeing the huge reverence for people like Kanye W and the success of The Great Gatsby and the Iron Man franchise.
The film is much lighter on sex, drugs and violence from what I expected it to be considering the creative team behind it, but as a film about the stress of low-budget filmmaking I think it was an efficient paranoid thriller that hints at the cynicism of Hollywood. It is such a shame that it was so relentlessly attacked by the chirpy fresh cynicism of happy-shiny-superhero 2013 Hollywood.