Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 #65 The Canyons (2013)
Welcome, friends, to the latest entry in Control Nathan Rabin 4.0. It’s the career and site-sustaining column that gives YOU, the kindly, Christ-like, unbelievably sexy Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place patron, an opportunity to choose a movie that I must watch, and then write about, in exchange for a one-time, one hundred dollar pledge to the site’s Patreon account. The price goes down to seventy-five dollars for all subsequent choices.
Today’s salacious selection, the notoriously troubled 2013 erotic drama The Canyons was at once a singularly sexy and unsexy proposition as an unmade film. On the sexy side, it was a sexually explicit provocation by director Paul Schrader, a legendary, iconoclastic filmmaker whose resume includes Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ and Mishima: A Life in 4 Parts from a screenplay by the literary Enfant terrible Bret Easton Ellis, who shocked, horrified and titillate the literary and then cinematic world with Less Than Zero, Rules of Attraction and American Psycho. Once upon a time Ellis was a preeminent literary Enfant terrible. Now he’s just widely, and correctly, seen as terrible.
That pairing alone should have set the hearts of studios and distributors atwitter. Then there was the subject matter: the sick, psychosexual head games of a film producer with an open relationship with his actress girlfriend that includes bisexual orgies, random hook-ups and ultimately MURDER featuring explicit nudity of both the male and female variety from arguably the hottest, most famous male porn star alive, James Deen, and Lindsay Lohan. The famously troubled Mean Girls star poignantly embodies an archetype we will never stop finding heartbreaking and fascinating: the beautiful, hyper-sexualized former child star who grew up way too fast and way too hard to become a debauched hedonist, sexual adventurer and tabloid fixture as an adult whose exploits and sexploits play out in screaming headlines and trashy reality shows rather than movie screens.
Also on the sexy side: all of the sex. There is a fuck ton of fucking in The Canyons. The dongs are not quite at Equinox levels, to cite what I imagine will always be the gold standard of trouser hog display, but they are plentiful.
Unlike Equinox, The Canyons does not have thirty to fifty feral trouser hogs all up in everybody’s business but there are at least four or five Bologna ponies on display in all their naked, unfettered glory.
The Canyons aspires to messily blur the line between art and pornography and expression and exploitation the way Last Tango in Paris did in an earlier era. And to do so with bona fide celebrities! And a famous porn star doing famous porn star-type sex stuff!
Lohan is one of those lovely young women who want to look two or three years younger so they go so overboard with plastic surgery that they end up looking several decades older than they actually are.
I’m not entirely sure how, but in her quest to keep up with impossibly daunting competition and the ravages of time, Lohan, who was around twenty-six when the film was made, has the onscreen appearance of a blowsy fifty-six year old Miami Beach Jewish divorcee who abused her plastic surgeon son’s offer to do free work on her.
On the unsexy side, Shrader has always been a screenwriter first and a director second; while Mishima is a stone-cold masterpiece and he had a major comeback with 2017’s First Reformed there’s a reason his most auspicious credits are screenplays for Martin Scorsese.
Schrader’s directorial record is all over the map and filled with real stinkeroos, duds such as The Canyons. Ellis similarly peaked as a cultural force long ago and now is better known for saying and doing annoying things, like being angrier at people for the crime of over-reacting, in his estimation at least, to the threat posed by Donald Trump than by Trump goose-stepping madly towards fascism. He also said people crazily over-rate the films of Katheryn Bigelow because she’s smoking hot, which is certainly a take.
Then there’s Lohan. The public was still incontestably fascinated with her when her casting in a crowd-fundied Paul Schrader movie opposite a figure then romanticized, wrongly as it turns out, as the thinking woman’s, feminist male porn star made headlines.
But they were morbidly fascinated with Lohan as a troubled human being and infamous personal and professional train wreck, not as an actress.
With The Canyons, Schrader wanted to use the qualities that make Lohan so compelling as a human being—her sadness, her confused quality, that singular combination of strength and vulnerability, that raspy voice redolent of experience and loss—to create a character deeper and more haunting and powerful than any Lohan had played before.
Schrader failed. He fucking failed. Hoo boy did he fail big time. Lohan has her moments, most notably towards the end, after she comes to realize the extent of her boyfriend’s sinister machinations and it takes everything in her power not to fall apart completely but for the most part the problem with The Canyons as an acting showcase/comeback vehicle for its scandalous leading lady is that her acting is mostly quite poor.
The acting, writing and direction in The Canyons is so stilted, overwrought and borderline amateurish, and its production value so low, that it often feels like a porn movie that left way too much of the fucking out.
Honestly, if every scene in The Canyons ended with six to eight minutes of non-simulated sex, capped off with a money shot, it would feel more natural and honorable than the film delusionally imagining that we’re emotionally invested in any of the film’s characters, who have the regrettable dual quality of being impressively unlikable yet deeply boring at the same time.
James Deen makes the big leap from pornography as the worst of the lot. Deen plays the ironically named Christian, who is essentially the anti-Christ, a smirking sexual sadist who produces shitty low-budget movies primarily as an excuse to play sick psycho-sexual mind-games with his cast, crew and girlfriend Tara (Lindsay Lohan), a desperate, struggling actress.
Since the release of The Canyons, Deen has faced horrifying allegations of sexual assault and misconduct. Watching Deen play a dead-eyed sociopath who treats human beings like disposable playthings to be used, then carelessly discarded, it felt queasily like I was watching the serial sexual abuser described in blockbuster exposes about Deen’s crimes.
Playing a selfish monster with nothing but contempt for humanity and everyone he meets comes way too easily to Deen, who is introduced alongside Tara attempting to shock and arouse his personal assistant Gina (Amanda Brooks) and her hunky actor boyfriend Ryan (Nolan Funk) with accounts of their vigorous sex life having random bisexual fuck-fests with men and women they meet via an app.
Christian doesn’t realize that Ryan is Tara’s former boyfriend and that he’s still madly in love with her and is having an affair with her behind his back.
Ryan will soon be starring in a low-budget b-movie Christian is funding; they’re shitty people making a shitty movie for shitty people, loathsome fucks fucking and fucking each other over as they jockey helplessly for position, all too aware that Christian holds all the cards, professionally, financially, sexually and otherwise.
Christian treats the over-sexed people in his life as chess pieces to be cavalierly moved around the board and knocked over carelessly in a sick game only he understands.
The Canyons represents yet another milestone in Ellis’ ongoing, career-long, distressingly successful accidental quest to render kinky sex and drug use agonizingly dull. Ellis might like to think he’s updated Dangerous Liaisons for the internet age; instead he’s made something dangerously boring.
Film and literary characters do not have to be likable to be fascinating or compelling of course. Look at Patrick Bateman. It would be hard to imagine a more loathsome character, with the possible exception of everyone here, yet because Mary Harron and Christian Bale managed to wrestle the character away from Ellis so completely he’s a screen villain for the ages.
Schrader of all people knows that protagonists do not need to be likable to hold our interest or make us care about them. But they need to be something more than screamingly unlikable; none of the characters here meet that bar. They’re just awful, morally, conversationally and in every other conceivable way as well.
The Canyons is deeply unsatisfying on pretty much every level. You know a movie is failing when you start fixating on how badly the background sound is handled, how street noise will angrily compete with dialogue for prominence in the mix in a way that makes The Canyons feel like amateur hour despite the pedigree of the talent involved.
Late in The Canyons, long after I had checked out, director and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back bit player Gus Van Sant shows up as Doctor Campbell, Christian’s psychiatrist.
The cameo would be pointlessly distracting even if the filmmakers didn’t have Christian reflect on how powerless he felt when he lost control of a previous evening’s group sex, how usually he feels like a director but in that moment he felt as vulnerable, worm-like and impotent as a lowly actor.
It doesn’t help that Van Sant turns to the camera, winks broadly and says, “Wow, sounds like you’re turning into quite the Psycho, 1998! Your gal pal sounds to die for but even cowgirls get the blues, so drink some Milk and help me find Forester because you’re the man now, dog!”
I mean, I get how that might be a gag in the Jay and Silent Bob reboot but it’s very out of place in a steamy sexual drama. It doesn’t even make sense.
The Canyons keeps lazily upping the stakes and the violent perversity so when the film’s only dynamic character goes full-on American Psycho it’s barely shrug-worthy.
If you care about any of the characters in The Canyons then hat’s off to you because that is an extraordinary feat of empathy. God knows Schrader and Ellis don’t seem to view these characters as anything other than bugs to be stomped on by fate.
The Canyons opens and closes with haunting images of abandoned movie theaters that went out of business long ago, and now exist in a sad, semi-feral state still sprinkled liberally with stardust.
There is nothing in the world sadder or more beautiful than a movie theater that long go ago ceased to exist as an ongoing business, leaving behind an ugly-beautiful corpse of a building that refuses to accept its fate and mortality and lingers on as a ghost of its former self.
The downside to showing movie buffs all of these heartbreaking old theaters is that I found myself desperately wanting to be inside them, at any point in the last fifty years, watching pretty much any movie other than the fucking Canyons.
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