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The Canyons

Reviewed by James Slaymaker.

Director Paul Schrader
Length 99 mins
Certificate 18 / R
Rating *******---
Filmmaking: 4  Personal enjoyment: 3

Photo from the article The Canyons is an erotic thriller stripped of thrills and eroticism, which doesn’t mean that it isn’t any good. The plot focuses on the absurdly rich, L.A-based Christian (James Deen), who lives off a trust fund and produces trashy B-movies on the side, and his live-in girlfriend Tara (Lindsay Lohan), a former struggling actress who transparently stays with him only because he provides her with material comfort. In their spare time, the pair stage group sessions with willing strangers they find over the net, which Christian records on his phone. When Christian finds out that Ryan (Nolan Gerard Funk) - the actor he’s hired to play the lead in his latest project - is Tara’s ex-boyfriend, he becomes consumed by the fear that they are going to rekindle their relationship behind his back (and it’s not long before they actually do). As his thoughts become clouded by envy and paranoia, his behaviour towards Tara grows increasingly possessive and manipulative.

The screenplay was written by controversial novelist Bret Easton Ellis, and all of his signature obsessions are present. The characters view their lavish lifestyles through a lens of detached lethargy, having spent so long in this ultra-materialistic milieu that they now take part in the institutional rituals of modern day hedonism and consumerism more out of half-hearted habit rather than actual enthusiasm. The central love triangle is merely a set up for a complex interplay of power grabs, in which every participant is equally shameless, entitled and narcissistic. Ellis’ oeuvre is populated with people whose sense of identity becomes so tied to what they own that their inner lives corrode almost entirely. The omnipresent consumer culture that surrounds them hollows the characters out and leaves them empty vessels. Wealth doesn’t just corrupt the soul here, it destroys the self.

Director Paul Schrader vigorously reflects the material’s thematic concerns on a formal level. The action is mostly captured in static, high-resolution digital wide-shots filled with negative space, which often pay as much attention on the surrounding decor as the characters themselves. The drama is largely restricted to the interiors of blandly sleek (by design) mansions, malls and restaurants, which are soaked in abrasive neon light and filmed dispassionately, rendering them attractive only in a cold, vacant way. Combined with the intentionally stilted line readings and the playful black humour of Ellis’ dialogue, the film creates an odd intermingling of the vérité and the stylised, and the overall atmosphere is one of cool detachment.

This is, in other words, the closest that any filmmaker has come to truly producing a visual analogue to the author’s iconic prose style, and The Canyons even enriches Ellis’ usual themes by combining them with ideas about the death of celluloid and the democratisation of the cinematic image. It imagines a culture of constant surveillance that actively fosters the characters’ self-absorption. Because the leads are constantly recording themselves, updating their social media pages, and outwardly diagnosing their own emotional states, their private and public lives quite literally blur into one.

The Canyons is purely, unabashedly, a film of ideas. However, by so thoroughly doing away with dramatic tension, psychological nuance and emotional resonance in their service, the end product becomes a striking, intellectually engaging achievement that’s, well, kind of a chore to sit through.

This review was published on May 16, 2014.

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