The Canyons

The Canyons

***

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Among those with sufficient money to set aside day to day concerns, boredom has to be one of the defining characteristics of our age, and it's a subject that Bret Easton Ellis has been exploring ever since American Psycho. The problem, of course, is that it's difficult to address the subject without being boring, and many viewers will reject The Canyons for this reason. The general absence of charisma in its cast and the long, slow passages where nothing much happens don't help, but for those willing to bear with it, there are interesting ideas lurking under the surface.

At the core of the film is Tara (Lindsay Lohan), a sometime model who got sick of poverty and fell into a relationship with Christian (porn star James Deen). She doesn't love him, of course, which, though he won't acknowledge it, seems to deepen his obsession with her; and though they practice swinging their relationship has strict rules which seem to apply more to her behaviour than to his. When he casts Ryan (Nolan Funk), a young man whom he doesn't realise is her former boyfriend, in the slasher movie he plans to make, trouble is on the cards - especially as Ryan remains besotted with her. Caught up in this mess are Ryan's girlfriend Gina (Amanda Brooks) and Christian's lover Cynthia (Tenille Houston).

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Given Ellis' tendency to re-use names, those familiar with his work will recognise that there are archetypes at play here - that part of the point is that this drama has been played out before and will be played out again, even in Hollywood, where people like to think they're creative. There's even a cameo by Gus Van Sant as psychiatrist Dr Campbell, which, in a Valley accent, sounds like Kimball, Ellis' perpetual narrative outsider. Our brief encounter with this character raises questions about the narrative Christian has built for himself; but the real horror seems to lie in the fact that none of the latter's showing off can actually make him interesting, and he knows it.

Deen, unfortunately, doesn't seem to know much of anything, at least when it comes to acting. He's not so much a blank as a sucking void at the heart of the film. Lohan, however, has a better understanding of what she's being asked to do, and shows us a human being underneath the layers of performance. This balances her character's apparent lack of agency as we get the sense she understands her own feelings better than any of the others, and it's important in countering the inevitable accusations of misogyny that will be thrown at the film. Yes, it shows women being bullied and used, and some viewers will doubtless find pleasure in that, but it doesn't come across as something that's being celebrated. Part of Christian's panic stems from the fact that none of his power games can actually make him feel powerful any more. A subplot in which he attempts to humiliate Ryan is turned on its head when the young would-be actor proves capable of taking control himself.

Then there's the sex. Sadly, some critics appear to have missed the humour in this. The Canyons isn't a sex film, it's a film about sex, and about our cinematic expectations of sex; this is a world in which the thrill of the act has been lost because everything has become pornography. In a pivotal scene, disco lights ripple across four entangled bodies, evoking the cheesiest Seventies porn, but we don't see any penetration and it is the women, not the men, who become demanding, wanting to see their boyfriends get it on. In a world where men have lost the power to assert themselves even through sexual aggression, Christian can see only out and out violence as a solution. The climax of this is an act more ritualistic than logical, a desperate attempt to create meaning.

In the background, there's the slasher film, never actually getting shot. Nobody care about it. A bunch of kids getting cut up. We've seen it before.

We've seen The Canyons before, but that doesn't make its cri de coeur any less urgent.

Reviewed on: 31 Jul 2013
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A wealthy young man used to manipulating others through his work in the movie business begins to freak out when he senses he's losing control.
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Director: Paul Schrader

Writer: Bret Easton Ellis

Starring: Lindsay Lohan, James Deen, Nolan Funk, Amanda Brooks, Tenille Houston, Gus Van Sant

Year: 2013

Runtime: 95 minutes

Country: US

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