Everyone is exhausted in The Canyons. But even as Paul Schrader’s and Brett Easton Ellis’ wickedly unnerving satire offers the usual Southern California power games, it also shows how soul-sapping this constant contesting can be. Everyone knows the machinery is lubricated by tainted money, but this is all that anybody seems to know. Even the allure of Hollywood fame seems to have disappeared, leaving nothing in its wake. Terrified of standing still, the characters just keep pushing back the night. The frightening thing is, soon all they can see is more night.
The ringleader is Christian (played with a flat cruelty by porn star James Deen). A trust-fund kid whose missing-in-action father set him up with a film production company so that he wouldn’t get too bored with life, Christian spends only minimal time actually producing movies. He finds more enjoyment in running mind games on his verge-of-cracking-up girlfriend, Tara (Lindsay Lohan), who needs him to bankroll her drifting Hollywood life. Their relationship is much like all of Christian’s relationships, in that his pleasure is predicated on their debasement. In this, he’s like so many other Ellis characters, but also, on screen, slightly less blank than he might be on the page, owing largely to Schrader’s precise sense of humor in crafting this spectacle.
That spectacle is visible from the start: Tara and Christian are having dinner with Ryan (Nolan Funk), an earnest young actor who’s up for a role in Christian’s newest movie, and his girlfriend, Christian’s producer Gina (Amanda Brooks). For this game, Christian cuts Ryan down again and again, bullying and scornful. Schrader cuts from face to face, teasing tension from this quiet dinner, underlining Christian’s devastating, tight control over each of the others, even as it’s clear they all need something from him. It’s like they’re chained to a hungry shark, alternately thrilled and bitten, usually at the same time. But as desperate as their attention to him appears, Christian maintains his own sort of dealer’s distance, using his phone in order not to engage in much conversation with the resentful sycophants in front of him. There’s no question who’s picking up the tab.
After this first scene, The Canyons quickly reveals multiple, mechanical duplicities: Tara is having an affair with Ryan, Christian is sleeping with his yoga trainer. The film observes these relationships more than it explores them, framing them as serial lies and faux crises. All the performers maintain a vague indifference, connoted mostly through drearily affected accents — with the exception of the well cast Lohan, whose half bored and half terrified Tara looks about five seconds away from self-immolation in every scene.
For all the lurid subject matter (Christian has a thing for inviting online dates over to the house for three- or four-partner orgies; daily proceedings are barely interrupted by a perfunctory murder) and stories of on-set dramas, the film is not sensationalistic. Such remoteness recalls the styles of directors like Bresson and Ozu, who influenced Schrader so much earlier in his career. But the crackpot camp factor, frequently funny, also brings to mind Mary Harron. Just as she turned Ellis’s banal catalog of horrors, American Psycho, into a comic meditation on status-mongering, Schrader takes the shards of a tacky Hollywood soap opera and transforms it into a pointed, sometimes brutal comedy.