A movie can be highly imperfect, stilted, or implausible in all sorts of ways—and still be everything you go to the movies for. The Canyons, Paul Schrader's contemplation of moral decay in Hollywood, is that kind of picture, in some places so crazy-silly you want to laugh and in others so piercing you can't turn away. Schrader has plenty to say: He kicks off with a montage of boarded-up, tumbling-down movie theaters, and their visages reappear throughout the film like sad little ghosts. But mostly, he channels his feelings of disappointment, of longing, of an unnameable bummed-out something, through Lindsay Lohan. She's the picture's muse and its Shiva, its reason for existing and the force that threatens to tear it apart. People who don't understand movies often speak of them as escapism, a kind of passive fantasy. Lohan's performance in The Canyons, so naked in all ways, is the ultimate retort to that kind of idiocy: To watch it is to live in the moment.
Lohan plays Tara, a woman who could be a Hollywood climber but who really, maybe, just wants to survive. The boyfriend she's latched onto is suitable only on the surface: Christian (the adult-film performer James Deen) is an egotistical trust-fund kid who dabbles in producing horror movies. For fun, he invites outsiders into his and Tara's home for three- and four-way couplings, which he captures on his cell phone.
Tara used to have a much nicer boyfriend, a stalwart, not-at-all-sleazy hunk of an actor named Ryan (Nolan Funk). She pulls some strings to get Ryan a part in one of Christian's movies, though it's not long before the current boyfriend senses that the specter of the old one hasn't quite vanished. Christian clamps down on Tara, and his possessiveness flowers into something sinister, like a hothouse Hollywood version of Liaisons Dangereuses.
The nuts and bolts of the plot are the least interesting things about The Canyons. Christian's transformation from egotistical jerk to megalomaniacal madman takes up too much of the story's real estate. (The script is by onetime literary bad boy Brett Easton Ellis.) It doesn't help that playing the heel—even such an obviously complex, messed-up heel—doesn't suit Deen, with his sexy-tech-nerd-next-door demeanor. Unlike the veteran porn actor Rocco Siffredi in the films he made with Catherine Breillat, Deen can't melt into the role, though he carries himself with a braggadocio that's something to behold.
Then again, even with all of the movie's full-frontal male nudity—lots of it—Lohan is really all you want to look at. Through most of The Canyons, she's made up à la Elizabeth Taylor circa The Sandpiper, all winged eyeliner and exaggerated lips. Yet from certain angles, she could also be a more voluptuous Natalie Wood, and the combination is stirring. Tara is a nectarine on the far side of ripening, and this isn't a story about innocence lost—she sold that off long ago. But there's a dreaminess about her that could never crystallize into hardness. When her friend Gina (Amanda Brooks) asks why she scaled back her involvement in Christian's fledgling film, Tara evades the question, and not just because Gina is Ryan's current girlfriend. Instead, she asks, “When was the last time you saw a movie that really meant something to you?”
That's Schrader's question, too. Directors like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, two of his '70s compatriots, have adapted to whatever the movie business has thrown at them and survived. Schrader hasn't made the same kinds of choices. But then, he's often made more interesting movies because of it, like the brazen 1999 romantic melodrama Forever Mine. Schrader must feel as lost in the current landscape as Tara does. In that way, they're two of a kind, and the world he's created for her here is half home sweet home and half toxic planet. Cinematographer John DeFazio makes L.A. daylight look both bleached-out and creamy. This is a place, like the Hollywood of David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, where you can live your dreams or become completely trapped—you're unlucky only if you can't tell which is which.
Schrader is a moralist, but what keeps him from being a pompous pain in the ass, as Woody Allen can be, is his capacity for regret. He doesn't delight in the nastier side of human nature; he's sorry, on behalf of all of us, that things have to be this way. And he's possibly the best director Lohan could have worked with at this point in her tenuous career.
There are people who have sympathy for Lohan, but one terrible thing about the world we live in is that there are still plenty who would love to see her fail. Schrader, for now at least, has built a protective wall around her. Recently in Film Comment he wrote of the similarities he sees between Lohan and Marilyn Monroe: “Tardiness, unpredictability, tantrums, absences, neediness, psychodrama—yes, all that, but something more, that thing that keeps you watching someone on screen, that thing you can't take your eyes off of, that magic, that mystery. That thing that made John Huston say, 'I wonder why I put myself through all this, then I go to dailies.'” Why do we put ourselves through all this? Why do we keep going to the movies, when so many of them are so heartlessly disappointing? The answer, and the challenge, is in Lohan's face. Look if you dare.