For those of us who’ve long been rooting for Lindsay Lohan to deliver a comeback performance, Paul Schrader’s The Canyons is an encouraging sign. It’s not quite the right vehicle for her comeback – the film’s too cold and unforgiving to really catch on for a career like that – but she’s so good, such a compelling mix of vulnerability and defiance, soft and hard, that it’s undeniable that she still has the goods. Years of tabloid trouble has moved her away from the teen queen image of her early great roles (Parent Trap, Freaky Friday, Mean Girls), but with age (relatively speaking) comes new ways of using beauty. She’s not damaged goods; she’s still an interesting screen presence, some of the old innocence kicking around within her now more experienced features, drawing you in here with her deceptively complicated performance. In the latest issue of Film Comment, Schrader, a great screenwriter (Taxi Driver) and director (Affliction) who has also worked as a film critic, compared her to Marilyn Monroe. I don’t think that’s too far off. Lohan, like Monroe, has that innate ability to seem as if she simply exists on screen, open and bare, as if her role is some form of performance as biography. But the craft behind it is sharper than that, and second nature too.
The film concerns itself with several characters sliming around on the periphery of Hollywood. Lohan plays an ambiguously well off young woman living with her low-level producer boyfriend. Actually, to call him a producer seems a stretch. He's living off a generous trust fund and willing to put up half the money for a low-budget horror movie. It's clear pretty quickly that he's a controlling monster, so as the film concerns itself with Lohan's affair with the boyfriend (Nolan Funk) of his assistant (Amanda Brooks), it's not hard to hope she can get away. Even though her boyfriend doesn't mind inviting strangers in for a close look at their relationship, he never wants to feel as if he's not in control. That’s why, say, he can secretly fool around with his yoga instructor (Tenille Houston), but gets scary possessive when he suspects Lohan’s straying too. Late in the film he tells his psychologist (director Gus Van Sant in a pleasant cameo performance) that he hates feeling like an actor in his own life. As the cliché goes, what he really wants to do is direct. This is the impulse that leads him straight into being a real sociopath-next-door type.
He's played by James Deen, a porn star who got profiles in places like GQ and Slate for having a fanbase of young women. In his mainstream debut, he proves he's no James Dean and certainly no Sasha Grey, who made the same acting transition with a great performance in Steven Soderbergh's 2009 film The Girlfriend Experience. Now there’s a film that circles around the kind of vacant young professionals with unrealized ambitions and unspoken desires in a way that feels rich and earnestly chilly. Here coldness arrives unnaturally, and the problem starts with Deen. There's an early scene in which he's called upon to do nothing more than welcome a visitor to his home and offer him a drink. It's hard to watch him struggle to figure out how he should hold his body, grab some glasses, and deliver the lines at the same time, and do it all naturally, too. It's a moment to make one realize how many little things most "bad" performances get right. It might’ve helped him, of course, if the script by Bret Easton Ellis (a satirist, I guess, whose satire often gets lost in his plots’ slime) was sharper about incorporating the thrillery aspects into a rather tedious and surface-level curiosity about interpersonal smart phone surveillance and life mediated by glowing screens.
And yet, the film is so often interesting on the surface that it almost (I said “almost”) doesn’t matter that aspects of awkward artificiality don’t quite satisfy. The film is clunky with long dull passages and characters that never quite come into focus in a rather unforgiving plot that grows thinner the more it reveals. But the cold, sleek digital cinematography from John DeFazio kicks up an icy thriller atmosphere as the couple behaves badly. Sharing some similarities with Schrader's 1980 film American Gigolo, another (and mostly better) film of stylish surfaces and conspicuous consumption that parses the distinctions between power dynamics in relationships while a thriller subplot cooks along underneath, The Canyons is as modern as that film is a time capsule. (I wonder how this will look to audiences in 30 years?) It's all about flat affects, effortless lies, and a sense of digital openness that somehow paradoxically hides as much as it reveals. "No one has a private life anymore," Deen says early on. The plot is basically a feature length refutation of his claim. It's when private details are sussed out that the real trouble begins. Left secretive, these characters could get away with murder.
Schrader's direction smartly defuses the script by Bret Easton Ellis. It's a film that in topic and casting (tabloid darling and porn star play a couple that clashes over sexual exploits!) could be exploitative and smutty, but the biggest prurient moment is filmed in mostly close-ups in a dark room with spinning disco lighting. He’s a smart filmmaker; the film’s smallness and awkwardness almost seems to be the point. Unfortunately, that doesn’t lead to a movie that’s particularly watchable outside of the pleasures of the cinematography and the reminder that Lohan can be, given the chance, a great screen presence. Is The Canyons a deep film about shallow people, or a shallow film about deep ideas? Either way it's more fun to chew over afterwards than it is to watch it in the first place.