MRR Review: "The Canyons"

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A contemporary thriller neo-noir set in L.A. detailing the dangers of sexual obsession and ambition, both personally and professionally, among a group of people in their 20's and how one chance meeting unravels all of their lives, resulting in deceit, paranoia, cruel mind games and ultimately, violence. Directed by Paul Schrader and produced by Braxton Pope, the film stars Lindsay Lohan, James Deen, Nolan Gerard Funk & Amanda Brooks.
2.5

MRR Review: "The Canyons"

-- Rating: Not yet rated
Length: 100 minutes
Release Date: August 2, 2013
Directed by: Paul Schrader
Genre: Drama, Thriller

Just reading the credits of Paul Schrader's latest project gives a glimpse into the kind of movie it is. The film's writer is Bret Easton Ellis, the controversial leader of the literary Brat Pack in the 1980s. Ellis is partially responsible for films such as "American Psycho" (2000) and "Less Than Zero" (1987). Typically, his focus is on disaffected youth and rampant corruption in Los Angeles. "The Canyons" is no exception to this trend. Although the movie is not yet rated, its sex and violence is over-the-top in a characteristically Ellis way.

The film's stars are no less surprising than its writer. Lindsay Lohan plays the main love interest. Anyone who has kept up with pop culture during the past decade knows all about Lohan's exploits. Over the years, Lohan has transformed from a wholesome preteen starlet to an unfortunately troubled young woman with more mug shots than red carpet photos. The other main star is James Deen, an actor whose filmography needs a NSFW warning. Known mostly for his work in the adult film industry, Deen is an unusual choice for a lead in a more mainstream movie.

Between Lohan, Ellis, and Deen, it is fairly obvious that this low-budget erotic thriller is not supposed to be a thoughtful or highbrow masterpiece. It probably will not earn any Oscar nods or inclusions on prestigious "best-of" lists. All the same, Schrader is well-known for being a risk-taker in Hollywood. He might not be on the same level of prestige as his contemporaries, such as Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg. But for better or for worse, his movies promise an interesting and unconventional viewing experience. For some cinema fans, this can be an entertaining break from movies that seem carefully designed to draw critical acclaim.

Lohan stars as Tara, a fragile actress who is currently working on a small film project. Christian (Deen) is her current boyfriend, an icy and calculating rich kid who prides himself on being promiscuous and callous. It is obvious that Tara's relationship with Christian is not a healthy one. In fact, they may be the poster children for unhealthy romances. Christian is producing a movie that stars Tara and Ryan (Nolan Gerard Funk), a fresh-faced actor who is far more na•ve and kind-hearted than Christian. Unfortunately, it turns out that Ryan is not without flaws. He once had a fling with Tara, and the two soon pick up where they left off. When Christian catches wind of their infidelity, he is not one to be gracious about it.

Ellis used the popular fundraising site, Kickstarter.com, as a way to drum up the funds for the movie. Ellis originally asked fans and supporters of independent cinema to raise $100,000. In the end, the project earned over $159,000, with over a thousand donors. In this way, "The Canyons" is an interesting product of its time. It is a movie that exists thanks to the generosity and curiosity of the Internet at large, rather than a few well-connected producers. This ostensibly gives the filmmakers some extra freedom when it comes to artistic expression. But in the case of "The Canyons," this artistic freedom might not have gone to the best possible use.

The movie is as shallow and purposefully callous as its protagonists. "The Canyons" does not offer a though-provoking exploration of the dangers of youth-obsessed L.A. Instead, it serves to titillate its viewers with uncomfortable scenes. Like many of Ellis' works, the movie is an indictment of the heartless movie industry that hides its own heart a little too well. Lohan is disconnected, and it is hard to tell where her character ends and she begins. One of the movie's bright spots is Deen, who pulls off the unscrupulous Christian with icy panache.

Funk lends some interest to the movie's credits. Surrounded by co-stars who are famous for stirring up controversy, Funk has a track record that is still fairly clean. He has previously appeared in "Spectacular!" (2009), a Nickelodeon show that capitalizes on the popularity of "High School Musical" (2006). Funk has also appeared in a few episodes of "Glee." A darkly violent and sleazy thriller is a drastic change of pace for Funk. It seems that he is hoping to branch out and prove himself as a more serious, or at least more controversial, actor. Somehow, his wholesome image makes Funk's involvement in the film all the more shocking than Lohan's or Deen's.

Ultimately, "The Canyons" is pretty and artsy, yet also difficult to watch. As glossy as magazine pages and as disturbing as a pulpy novel, the movie is scandalous enough to make Ellis suitably proud.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars