Posted February 9, 2014 by William Dunmyer in Worst of 2013

The Canyons: Worst Film of 2013

The Canyons was released in New York in the summer of 2013. The week it opened, I read impressive things about Lindsay Lohan’s performance and was excited that the film’s creative team was Bret Easton Ellis (screenwriter) and Paul Schrader (director). I was very eager to see their newest work and what was essentially Lohan’s comeback picture.

But it was pulled from theaters almost immediately. I think it lasted only two weeks, and I missed my chance to see it. Happily, it became available through Netflix recently. (God bless Netflix.)

I had always wondered why The Canyons disappeared so fast. Now I know: it’s a terrible film. It’s so bad that it wins my vote for Worst Film of 2013. Its only saving grace is Lohan’s interesting, deeply felt performance. She is magnetic on screen, despite the toll that years of drug abuse have clearly taken on her face and body.

But Lohan cannot save the film. The rest of the cast is mediocre at best, atrocious at worst. A male porn star (using his ridiculous porn name, James Deen) plays the lead opposite Lohan. I certainly don’t object to porn stars doing dramatic films. I loved how Steven Soderbergh pioneered this with his under-rated The Girlfriend Experience (2009), with porn starlet Sasha Grey in the lead role. The difference is that Grey can act. Deen struggles in every scene. At times he’s laughable, as laughable as his porn name.

The main problem with the film is not the acting, however. It’s the idiotic script and the banal direction. Don’t blame the actors for this fiasco. Blame Ellis and Shrader, who threw this together without much thought. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ellis wrote the monosyllabic script on his BlackBerry while driving in L.A.


Lohan plays a woman who came to Los Angeles a few years earlier with her young actor boyfriend. She has no career ambitions but does have a deep drive to get out of poverty. Her way out: being the kept girl of a rich man. Who the man is doesn’t matter much.

At the start of the film, she has become the live-in girlfriend of a wealthy producer of schlock horror movies (Deen). The film has major interest in their sex life, which is very active. But it’s not clear why Ellis and Schrader find this so interesting. My hunch is simply that they found it titillating. One could argue that the main reason this film got made was that Schrader wanted to film explicit sex scenes with a male porn star.

Deen’s character is always on the Internet looking for people to join them in bed. We watch them have two sex parties, one with a single man and one with a couple. Deen’s character is clearly becoming bi-curious, but this is not germane to the story at all. It just seems to be thrown in as a way for Schrader and Ellis to turn themselves on, bringing their own man-on-man fantasies to life — with a straight male porn star to act them out. Bazinga!

There is some slight post-modern irony in the fact that the film contains one scene where a gay director coerces a straight male actor to sleep with him. In a sense, Shrader uses the film to explore what he no doubt dreams of doing to Deen. In the classic post-modern move, Schrader brings the filmmaking process into the film itself — the film comments on the filmmaking process. This may have been revolutionary in the 1960’s when Jean-Luc Godard invented it. But that was a long time ago. Now it’s hackneyed.

But this is a minor theme in the film anyway. What The Canyons more focuses on is the breakdown in the relationship between the Lohan/Deen characters. Things go awry when Deen realizes that Lohan is still seeing the actor-boyfriend on the side. He is already paranoid; this sends him over the edge. He starts paying people to spy on her and report back what they learn.

This is moderately interesting, especially when other characters start spying on each other as well. It makes contemporary Los Angeles feel like Stalin’s Moscow, with ordinary people spying on their neighbors and reporting them to the secret police. But even this theme isn’t developed very far. Instead the film makes a sudden detour into an absurd, completely unbelievable murder. This ridiculous spasm of violence is awkwardly shoved into the script presumably because Ellis couldn’t think of any other way to end the film. The Canyons is a true clunker.

It’s a shame that an actor of Lohan’s stature is caught up in this drivel. She may be the laughing stock of the tabloids, but anyone who knows true acting knows that Lohan is the real thing. She ought to be cut some slack the way we’ve cut Robert Downey Jr. slack for being an addict. There’s nothing funny about her difficulty with substances.


William Dunmyer

William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.