Author Bret Easton Ellis has lamented the film adaptations of his books. But, in his defence, they have wavered in quality and insight. When you consider that 1987’s brat-pack showcase Less Than Zero was barely recognisable as an adaptation of Ellis’ first published book, and that 2009’s The Informers lacked the self-awareness and satire of its source material, the author’s frustration is justified.
Ellis stated that Roger Avary’s 2002 adaptation of The Rules of Attraction “captured the sensibility” of the novel more so than Mary Harron’s cinematic reinvention of American Psycho. But Avary omitted the conflicting first-person accounts given by The Rules of Attraction‘s characters, essentially leaving out that book’s most fascinating aspect. Given these efforts, it seems that writers and directors find it problematic to turn Ellis’ books into films.
Therefore, fans of the polarising author will be intrigued to see The Canyons, because it has a script written by Ellis directly for the screen. The movie was mostly funded by his fan base, so the demand for this project was undeniable. The big question: what does The Canyons capture that the aforementioned adaptations lack? What does a pure, unsullied, undiluted Ellis vision look like on screen? Although the movie is directed by Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader, Ellis was involved in its production. This is an Ellis movie – so what does an Ellis movie look like?
The Canyons is every bit as puzzling and perplexing as one might expect from Ellis. This is for a number of reasons. But the characters are no surprise – they are instantly recognisable as the author’s creations. The opening scene introduces two couples. In a classy restaurant, Christian (James Deen) and Tara (Lindsay Lohan) sit opposite Ryan (Nolan Funk) and Gina (Amanda Brooks). It’s immediately clear that we’re dealing with the spoiled narcissists that invariably inhabit Ellis’ version of privileged Los Angeles. Their dialogue is stilted and indirect. It’s an inconvenience that they have to step outside their own vanity and make idle chit chat.
Christian is a rich kid who is investing in movies to keep his father off his back. Gina is Christian’s assistant and put in a good word for Ryan, an aspiring actor, to get him a role in Christian’s horror movie. Tara is with Christian because he allows a decadent lifestyle. This is Ellis’ initial setup, but from here The Canyons immediately slithers through twists and turns as we peer beneath the surface of these shallow people.
When The Canyons confronts us with the vain and vacuous souls that we’ve come to love or hate across all of Ellis’ novels, one must ask the question: “Why?” That’s the perplexing question. Why was this movie made?
In his debut, Less Than Zero, as a 21-year-old writer, Ellis painted a devastatingly bleak portrait of the rich kids of Los Angeles. He explored the circumstances – the affluence, the absent parents – in which monsters are made. Yet here, as a 49-year-old writer, Ellis is seemingly retracing his steps. This is very familiar territory. At least when he wrote Less Than Zero Ellis was the same age as his protagonists. So why hasn’t he moved on? What is new about The Canyons? Why has he written this film? Is Ellis repeating himself?
To the latter question, the answer is “yes”. This is Ellis in his comfort zone. But while fans of his writing can live with unlikeable characters in his books, on screen they are stripped of Ellis’ turn of phrase, sizzling prose, sharp observations and dark humour. When left with purely dialogue – plus details refracted through Schrader’s camera lens and a brooding score by Broken Social Scene’s Brendan Canning – we are given only the horrific sterility of these empty people. The bleakness is even more bleak – and slightly less interesting.
Adult film star James Deen gives an appropriately creepy performance as Christian, but struggles to embody anything more than a caricature of a vain psychopath. Some audiences may even view him as a parody of a typical Ellis character. But does the writer deserve more credit? Perhaps.
The Canyons takes on a layer of intrigue when you realise that Christian is a malevolent metaphor – a sinister construct. Christian is the personification of Hollywood’s evil. He can be compared to the river of slime that rises beneath New York in Ghostbusters II. The different ways in which Christian impacts on the lives of those around him reflects the ways in which Hollywood can also destroy those that venture there in search of fame and fortune. Those that make pacts with Christian – the characters who sign an unspoken contract – learn that there are consequences. Maybe this is Ellis’ observation of the deals that aspiring stars and starlets make with the corrosive force of Hollywood.
So, on this level, the film is interesting. But does the concept justify the exercise? The Canyons is by no means a large film and, despite its low budget, is by no means ambitious. But it is certainly Ellis’ most direct statement about the evils of Hollywood and the type of people who are either drawn to or forged there.
Lohan’s involvement has been the largest talking point of the movie’s production. In The Canyons the troubled actress reminds us what a natural and immensely talented actress she is. This is a brave performance, made all the more powerful because of what the audience knows of Lohan in real life. There is something deeply poetic about her casting in this movie and maybe it was the very idea of placing her in this role – in this relationship with Christian – that was Ellis’ ultimate reason for writing The Canyons. It gives the exercise some value.
The result is neither a failure or a masterpiece. And it is not the finest example of Ellis’ writing. But, despite its flaws, The Canyons deserves to be watched and taken seriously.