Less Than Zero, the novel, closes with its protagonist Clay returning to his New Hampshire college campus following the winter break where all kinds of atrocities were committed by his friends—namely rape, along with a bevy of ill-conceived ideas—while he played the passive watchdog . It is one of the most nihilistic mainstream novels in circulation, even after twenty-eight years. When you consider exactly what went on in the novel after indulging in the complete works of Bret Easton Ellis however, it no longer looks so threatening considering his later masterpieces: American Psycho, Glamorama.
The Canyons is his first film production and second produced screenplay. (His first was an adaptation of his own short story collection The Informers and released in 2008.) Directed by Paul Schrader, it became something of a belle de jour after Ellis announced his retirement from writing novels—citing something about the “death of the novel”—and that he would instead hone his dry scribe in the screenplay arena. This is the result.
It is perhaps Ellis who summed it up best when he said, “the film is so languorous. It’s an hour thirty, and it seems like it’s three hours long.” Just as Less Than Zero is practically a series of interconnected vignettes, The Canyons is one elongated version with little thread to unite the whole. In Screenwriting 101 you’re told your script will never sell unless there’s an explosion every ten pages—‘explosion’ being the verb of choice to convey something to keep the viewer interested in the film. This may be a hackneyed approach but there’s little on offer here for even the most hardened of film hipsters.
James Deen plays Christian, a trust fund kid and full-time psychopath. He is dating Tara, Lindsay Lohan, a woman who prefers to lie around under the sun over doing anything productive. Together they host frequent group sex sessions, inviting strangers into their home to, well, do it. They’re both incredibly rich and are on a quest to out-manipulate the other.
Christian and Tara are through-and-through typical Bret Easton Ellis characters. Both are devoid of emotion beyond pain and sexual lust and are driven by incredible egos to crush anyone in their path through whatever means possible. Credibility and integrity are foreign words here. This is Ellis’ Los Angeles without a doubt. Which makes it so unfortunate that the film is otherwise a clunker.
It plays like it would make an otherwise great novel. One of the more destructive sex scenes functions like a poor man’s Shame but comes across like it would make for great prose. Then again, this could be a reflection of the punk-attitude approach behind the film – shot for $250 000 with $159 015 sourced via Kickstarter (the goal was $100k). It certainly looks the part of American indie—Schrader’s home guest stars as Christian and Tara’s place—yet somewhere along the lines this was forgotten.
The result is far from disastrous. It’s just incredibly dull. For the record, James Deen does okay as psychopath Christian, comfortably reciting Ellis’ occasional clunky dialogue, at times representing the beautiful stiltedness of Delillo’s Cosmopolis. Given his porn star past where acting isn’t exactly the top priority it’s reassuring one more adult star—the previous being Sasha Grey—has the ability to transcend worlds without stumbling too much. (Don’t get me wrong; he’s far from perfect here.) Lohan has some great scenes but otherwise suffers from budget restrictions i.e. the inability to cater for multiple takes.
On paper this was a match made in heaven: Ellis’ nihilism combined with Schrader’s dirty hands. It hinted at a great return to American independent cinema, all while talking about the death of the very same thing. Casting a porn star alongside a Hollywood adjective was the cherry on top. Everything suggested something crazy would result, even if a little off the rails. Instead, we’re given an even slower, drearier version of a long Bold and the Beautiful episode. If his novel history is anything to go by, we’re far from seeing the best Ellis has to offer. Let’s hope it’s not too far away yet.
Nicholas Brodie – follow Nick on Twitter here: @fodusempire