The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Canyons

The Canyons arrives on a wave of intense curiosity, driven by its troubled, comeback-seeking leading lady, a much-derided teaser trailer, and a revealing behind-the-scenes article in the New York Times. As alluring as such things may be, it's obviously what's on the screen that really counts, which is why I vowed to forget the pre-release chatter when I sat down to screen The Canyons. As it turns out, the film is so much more than just the curio many perceive it to be.

Adult film star James Deen (who has some interestingly titled skin flicks on his resume) plays Christian, a trust-fund kid using his money to help establish himself as a Hollywood player. He's one of those obnoxious, overgrown brats who feel a sense of entitlement beyond all measure. For this reason, Christian is enraged when he discovers that his girlfriend Tara (Lindsay Lohan) is cheating on him with Ryan (Nolan Funk), the aspiring actor she persuaded him to hire for a horror movie he's bankrolling. Christian begins a series of sexual games aimed at humiliating Ryan and keeping Tara under his control. When the desired results don't come about, he moves on to increasingly extreme tactics. Meanwhile, Tara and Ryan try to find a way to be together without becoming victims of Christian's vengeful ways.

The Canyons was written by Bret Easton Ellis, the novelist famous for The Rules of Attraction and American Psycho. The director is Paul Schrader, whose previous films include Hardcore, American Gigolo, and Auto Focus. Obviously, both men share an interest in aberrant sexuality and the toll it takes on those who are drawn to it. The story they have collaborated on is filled with enough sexual oddity to make Sigmund Freud rise up out of the grave and start taking notes. For Christian, sex equals power. He is furious that Tara would cheat on him, despite the fact that he cheats on her regularly. He confesses to his therapist (Gus Van Sant) a sense of sexual inadequacy that is most certainly a driving factor in his behavior. He enjoys going online and inviting a stranger to come over and watch while he and Tara make love. As a no-nonsense display of his sexual power, he coerces Tara into participating in an orgy. (It's a sign of the movie's artfulness that the most fascinating thing about this sequence is the atmospheric lighting choice Schrader makes.) The Canyons explores the narcissistic mindset that leads one to play sex games with others, and James Deen gives a thoroughly effective performance as the deviously immoral Christian.

There's more to the picture than sex, however. The Canyons opens and closes with montages of old, rundown movie theaters. Such photos are occasionally inserted between scenes, as well. The symbolism is none too subtle; Schrader is telling us that The Canyons is really about the decline of cinema. Like those abandoned movie houses, the story's characters were once full of life and promise. Now they're facing decrepit, lonely existences. The director takes it a step further, suggesting that people like Christian, Tara, and Ryan (and everyone else in the film) are part of the reason why the quality of cinema is declining. If the people who make movies are too busy manipulating each other for power, money, and sex, they aren't likely focused on making a good product. I've never been a believer that the modern state of movies is terrible, yet this is a provocative theme that runs through The Canyons.

Now the thing it gives me great pleasure to say: Lindsay Lohan makes a scorching comeback in this film. As with Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, Lohan's well-documented real-life problems prove to be an asset to her performance. Tara is burned out, a bit dazed, and completely frustrated by the Hollywood lifestyle. Some may accuse Lohan of appearing distant or detached from the role, but I don't think that's true. The actress is clearly tapping into her own experiences not to mention her own demons to portray an almost thoroughly broken woman, one who doesn't know how to extricate herself from the subculture that has destroyed her. This is one of those cases where a performer seems to be identifying with the material on a deeper-than-normal level. It reminds us not only of the promise Lohan once held, but also of the promise that's still there.

On the down side, The Canyons doesn't develop any of the characters as fully as it could have. Exploring Christian's hidden self-doubt in even greater detail would have injected the film with more psychological power, as would plunging the depths of Tara's emotions regarding her frequent sexual degradation. For this reason, the movie is never as hard-hitting as American Gigolo or Auto Focus (or, come to think of it, the Schrader-penned Taxi Driver) were. Additionally, as is common in low-budget fare, a few scenes are awkward in where they begin or how they transition into one another. A few times, it feels as though Ellis and Schrader aren't sure how to move from one idea to the next.

While it won't likely be the kind of thing that makes a long-lasting impact, The Canyons is still a stylish, tantalizing, and highly watchable film with interesting things to say about both sexual gamesmanship and the state of cinema. It could be the beginning of a new chapter of Lindsay Lohan's career, and hey, maybe it'll get James Deen out of porn and into movies where he can really show off his (other) stuff.

( out of four)

The Canyons is unrated, but contains strong sexuality, nudity, violence, and language. The running time is 1 hour and 36 minutes.

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