Dear The Canyons,
In some small way, I am responsible for your creation. Over a year ago I gave your writer, director, and producer an undisclosed amount of money so that they could see you into this world with the singularity and pureness of their vision intact. I make this disclosure in the name of professionalism – even though I make nothing back if you are successful – but also to mark out the brave new world of filmmaking which you helped to usher in. Creators can now directly lobby consumers for the funds to make a film divorced from studios and meddling hands, and with a creative team like author Brett Easton Ellis (American Psycho) and Paul Schrader (The Comfort of Strangers), your draw was more than I could bear.
The danger in giving such outré artists money and creative freedom, however, is that you can’t depend on a studio or focus group to make them rein in their impulses. Lovers of film like to think we want our artists to act without restraint, but the possibility that shackles serve as creative guidance against the talent’s worst compulsions is very real.
With the promise of an uncompromised vision marring the threat of unguided provocateurs, how could we expect the offspring to be anything less than you, The Canyons? A nihilistic tale of sex and power and control told through the unblinking lens of an ardent voyeur, there is little reason to believe that you would ever find a large and appreciative audience. You’re too weird, too vulgar, too much. You make no strides to endear yourself to anyone, and yet in your brash and unyielding view of the rich and the hollow, you make yourself a kind of totem for the modern world at large, as seen by the generations that preceded it.
The story, by Easton Ellis, focuses on two couples on varying ends of the social and economic spectrum. At the top strata of both metrics are Christian (porn star James Deen) and Tara (celebrity train wreck Lindsay Lohan). Christian uses his trust fund to produce movies for his father and his mobile phone to produce partners for casual sex with him and Tara, a kink with Tara tolerates more than she enjoys. Life has handed her a golden ticket, and if the cost of her leisure and indulgence is allowing Christian the use of her body and privacy, she sees no problem with that.
Meanwhile, struggling actor Ryan (Nolan Funk) and his production assistant girlfriend Gina (Amanda Brooks) struggle to make ends meet in anticipation of Ryan’s big break in a low-budget horror movie they are both working on, which is being produced by Christian. Unbeknownst to their respective partners, however, Ryan and Tara are former lovers, clandestinely rekindling their physical relationship. The push-pull between idealistic romance and calculated self-sale sets Tara on a kind of moral crisis, and Christian – sensing the change in her – begins a campaign of terror against both her and Ryan.
The twists and entanglements that result drive the course of your narrative, bringing it to some rough and surprising places. This is a tale of how power and wealth and obsession corrupt people, the ways in which our modern take on success and living corrode the cores of those who buy into them. Easton Ellis has always been narrowly focused on the way that the pursuit of status can destroy a person or drive them to madness, as well as the incompatibility of actual emotion within this drive. Here he creates a virulently ugly narrative based on power and control, primarily motivated by and manifest in the act of sex. Christian likes to let men watch him and Tara, lording his ownership of her over them. His issue with Tara and Ryan’s affair is one of possession, not loyalty. This is a dirty plot filled with unsympathetic people, and will not be for everyone.
Lohan’s history off the screen seeps into the narrative and helps to give Tara an extra note of tragedy and pitiable weakness. Her climb up from the pit of her own languid non-action culminates in a moment of sexual subversion that at once gives her control but also slips Christina into an anarchic furor. It’s in this character beat that we find the true standout ingredient in your story, primarily thanks to the intensity and surprisingly easy rapport that Deen strikes in the role. What he brings to the film is the vacant yet calculated menace necessary for any great Easton Ellis character. Christian is disaffected, detached from the world around him through his arrogance and his laser-focus on binging on the fruits of his power. Deen is both cool and above-it-all when Christian is in control, and seethes with menace when things start to slip.
Schrader’s eye for composition and the way in which he dispassionately gazes upon the debauchery and moral decay of his characters adds to the sense of nakedness pervasive in your story. All of the deeds and acts of the characters are laid bare, brightly lit and open to outside scrutiny. It is no mere coincidence that Christian declares privacy to be dead, after all. Schrader is unafraid of the body, just as he is unafraid of the poisoned soul. The sole scene granted any kind of masking is a four-way sex scene that serves as a kind of turning point, the garish light show adding to the hallucinogenic feverishness of the actions.
You are without a doubt the product of undiluted vision. In that way you alienate and attract in equal measure. Your low budget is well-masked by your intimate spaces and the use of unknown or long-abandoned actors. Their varying degrees of success are the cost of doing business on your level, I suppose, but thankfully their now-and-then deficiencies are not enough to cripple you. Easton Ellis’s script is a bleak landscape to tend, but Schrader blesses it with his artist’s eye, and the two men draw up something better than would have been expected from the otherwise pulp material.
As I said before, you won’t be enjoyed or endured by everyone. I can say without reservation that, true to your roots, you feel more like a short story than a grand novel, a thin plot given the sheen of large production. Yet fans of your two creative benefactors will not be displeased, and the morbidly curious may be shocked to find themselves entranced and engaged in your tale of twisted psycho-sexual warfare.
The way the critical eye dances between the charitable, the laudable, and the unfortunate means you can’t be given a blanket recommendation, but you are far from a failure. After all, what can one hold against a film that so obvious achieves what it aims for while still neglecting and alienating its audience? So I’ll draw this all to an end it in a way your characters would understand: I’m not asking for my money back.
Brian J. Roan