Reappraising ‘The Canyons’: The Lindsay Lohan Comeback That Never Was (2022)

Photograph by Kevin Winter via Getty Images.

Lindsay Lohan is sunbathing in red lipstick and a matching red swimsuit. Below where she’s sitting on the balcony of her white mansion, the Malibu Hills stretch out wide and empty all the way to the sea. Her hair is wet, presumably from lounging in an infinity pool, and she puffs from a cigarette. “What did you do today?” asks her boyfriend. She shrugs: “I went to Equinox.” He gets up to make her a double gin and tonic, and she lies back down to recuperate from the stress of doing nothing.

This scene is so true to life it could be taken from the actress’s 2014 reality show Lindsay, which followed her post-rehab journey to recovery, but it’s actually a sequence from her performance in The Canyons. Directed by Paul Schrader, who made American Gigolo and wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and featuring a screenplay from Bret Easton Ellis, the film was set to be a cult classic. It had the potential to resuscitate Lindsay’s broken acting career when prison mugshots, crashed Ferrari’s, and lines of white powder had rendered her a walking US Weekly headline.

Intended as a pranky noir thriller, The Canyons follows a nightmarish Hollywood in which blonde yoga instructors, affairs in motels, and mid-afternoon tequila shots end in slasher movie violence. Lindsay plays Tara, a failed actress who’s in a relationship with Christian, played by porn star James Deen, an egotistical trust fund kid who produces horror movies in an effort to cure his boredom. Otherwise, he is using the made-up phone app Amour to organize orgies with Tara, which he captures on his mobile. When Tara pulls strings to cast her ex-boyfriend, Ryan, as the lead in one of Christian’s movies, he soon becomes frighteningly possessive.

Unfortunately for Lindsay, The Canyons was a failure. The film was rejected by Sundance and then by SXSW, with insiders claiming it suffered from “quality issues” and had an “ugliness and a deadness to it”. It’s rated just 22% on Rotten Tomatoes, with one critic calling it a “howlingly bad soap-opera-meets-soft-core-porn mash-up.” Another lamented: “Shrader [is] still obsessing about sex, lies, and videotapes in glamorous glassy houses at which you will want to throw bricks”.

The critics are right about the vapidity of The Canyons. Schrader provides an amoral world in which redemption is not possible—and even if it was, you don’t like the characters enough to care. But this was no mistake on Schrader’s part. In a 1999 interview, he explained that the “existential hero” had been supplanted by what he called the “ironic hero”—the guy who asks not “should I exist?” but “who cares?” The film expertly lays bare the inextricable link between death, violence, and sex within Hollywood, not with excitement but with a kind of Valium-soaked numbness. Most chilling of all is Lindsay’s performance as a failed actress. As she yawns into her Blackberry at the Chateau Marmont and sips calorie-free alcohol in silk robes, we sense she’s not actually acting, but playing out her own pain in front of the camera lens.

From the beginning, The Canyons production was racked with problems. Stephen Rodrick wrote about the experience of making a film with Lindsay for The New York Times Magazine: At one point, she stayed out until 5:30 am drinking with Lady Gaga, resulting in an ear infection. On another day, she spent $600 on sushi for her friends and put it on the film’s tab. This wouldn’t have been such a problem if she was acting in The Avengers, but this was The Canyons—and they were working from a microbudget of $250,000. As Rodrick reported, Schrader "was convinced that traditional financing for the films he liked to make was gone forever, along with the audience willing to drive five miles and pay $12 to watch them in a drafty art house. Well, the audience was still there, but they were at home." So producer Braxton Pope and Schrader decided to fund the film using Kickstarter. It was tight: actors were paid $100 a day; most of the film was shot in Schrader’s own home; and, at one point, they actually had to auction off the film production’s iPads to motivate crew members who hadn’t been paid in weeks.

Given the paltry budget, it seems fitting that one of the central themes of The Canyons is the death of cinema. The title sequence shows battered cinemas with letters dangling off their signs, boarded up windows, and moths eating away at red velvet seats. It’s set to a warped, jagged techno track that makes you feel as though an alien is about to burst out of someone or the zombie apocalypse is about to begin. In one scene, as Tara has lunch on Sunset Boulevard, she asks, “When was the last time you saw a movie that really meant something to you?” Her friend never answers the question.

The film’s unfeelingness is masterful. Even when you know the characters are in danger, hunted by Christian’s personal spies or suffering from broken hearts, you simply don’t care. It’s Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, but no one throws champagne in their enemy’s face or tears at blonde hair extensions. The Canyons replaces drama with bland conversations over sparkling water. “I’m really sorry I didn’t congratulate you on starting your own PR company,” Tara tells the girlfriend of the guy she’s sleeping with. The dialogue sounds stilted and rehearsed, like the massage sequence before the porn movie begins. Maybe Schrader was attempting a sort of Brechtian social realism, or maybe the script was just badly written? It’s difficult to tell.

Other critics disliked the cold appearance of the film. Everything from taut six-packs to bubbling hot tubs is washed in a grayish pale light, as anemic as Pamela Anderson’s bleached hair and faded denim. It’s as though a gangrenous infection is lurking behind all the beauty. Schrader explained his vision in an interview: “I went through this argument with my cinematographer on The Canyons because he’s one of those guys who’s yellow from this direction, green from that direction. That’s all it is. I felt that the Bret World was colder than that. Lighting gels are the wrong way to go with this material. So we went for a much cleaner look.”

While the rest of the film is anodyne and blank, one force that tremors with feeling is the fear behind Tara’s eyes. It’s difficult to imagine someone who could bring more emotional torment to the role of a failed actress than Lindsay. Like Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris or Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, her performance is less dramatization and more autobiography. “Her weakness is her inability to fake it,” Schrader explained in a 2013 essay. “She feels she must be experiencing an emotion in order to play it. This leads to all sorts of emotional turmoil, not to mention on-set delays and melodrama. It also leads, when the gods smile, to movie magic. Monroe had the same affliction. They live large, both in life and on screen.”

The cloud of Lindsay’s suspect celebrity hung over the entire film. Headlines like “Lindsay Lohan was fired from The Canyons on the first day” and “TANTRUM ON MOVIE SET: 'Do Your F**king Job'” filled magazines. As Rodrick reported in the Times, when trying to film a scene on Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, Lindsay arrived an hour late in her black Porsche, trailed by four or five paparazzi. She climbed out of her car and turned to the photographers: “I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll give you a good shot, but then you have to go,” she said, before hiking up her dress to show a bit of leg. The paparazzi didn’t keep their promise, so the crew had to move to a Century City mall, where they paid $3,000 for the privilege of filming without disturbance.

The resulting shot—in which Lindsay is followed through the mall by one of her jealous boyfriend’s spies—was filmed using handheld cameras. The images are shaky and uneven, to the point that they really feel as though they were filmed by paparazzi. The sense of quivering paranoia on Lindsay’s face, tensed shoulders and huge sunglasses, capture the genuine lack of control Lindsay had and has, over her own privacy. This is not the only reference made to Lindsay’s own lack of freedom. Christian spends an entire dinner telling everyone the intimate details of his and Tara’s sex life. When they get back home, Tara pours herself a big glass of sauvignon blanc and tells him, “I guess I would like to keep some aspects of my life private.”

“Her weakness is her inability to fake it. She feels she must be experiencing an emotion in order to play it.”

Throughout most of the film, Lindsay wears thick Elizabeth Taylor-style winged eyeliner and rose-pink blush. But in the last scene, she’s stripped down: her freckles and pale white skin shine through. The girl who was in Parent Trap, Mean Girls, and Herbie Reloaded is back, looking small and vulnerable, as if the veneer of wild Hollywood party girl had washed away. The scene requires Lindsay to cry while Christian—who has completed his transformation from arrogant jerk to sadistic villain—strokes her face and tells her, “That’s a good girl.” Most actresses use Visine to well their eyes with tears, but, as Rodrick reported, Lindsay went back to her dressing room, and soon her whimpering had swelled into guttural howls. “It was the sobbing of a child lost in the woods,” he said. One gets the sense that sadness comes naturally to Lindsay.

After filming wrapped, Lindsay didn’t turn up to any of the red carpets or promotional events for The Canyons, blaming it for disrupting her sobriety. She might have debuted a new Arabic accent and become the spokeswoman for Lawyer.com, but Lindsay hasn’t been in any good films since then. Instead, she has returned to reality TV with her new MTV series Lindsay Lohan's Beach Club, about an elite members club in Mykonos. She never really needed to pretend to perform in the first place.

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