Director Paul Schrader, in a recent interview, explained The Canyons as "a movie about twentysomethings in Los Angeles who got in line to see a movie and then the theater closed but they stayed in line because they had nowhere else to go..."
This explains all the shots of abandoned cinemas Schrader employs as visual framing and silent reinforcement of The Canyons' anti-action. His characters (written by Less Than Zero/American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis, who knows all about the young and un-living of a very specific Los Angeles) talk about making movies themselves -- producing them, acting in them -- but nobody ever really does much more than text each other sexually manipulative messages on their phones and have threeways,. Plot takes a back seat to a mood of stunted emotional responses and confused emptiness as a young, blank, dependent woman (Lindsay Lohan) and her trust-funded puppetmaster boyfriend (porn star James Deen) spend their days doing a lot behind one another's back and also not much at all. He's got control issues and she's got a lover on the side (Nolan Funk) and together they've got hookups with strangers to accomplish and movie-making to discuss and not do, as though talking about the simulated world of film will be close enough to real life to suffice.
There'll be a lot of easy jokes made about Lohan's and Deen's performances here: his novice acting skills recall Sasha Grey's in Steven Soderberg's The Girlfriend Experience and Lohan feels like she's running on the fumes of exhaustion, her face commanding the screen and still serving an inner deadness that's almost too real to look at. But jokes aren't really the right response, especially when they're both exactly the right people in just the right roles. Her TMZ-narrated biography and his lack of non-sexual camera experience inform everything they do, whether it's shopping, staring, humping, sitting, lying on an expensive couch, texting or more staring. Together they embody Ellis's vision of contemporary vacuity, where idle people ignore their privilege and behave more and more like monsters with each passing decade, confusing pleasure with joy and stubbornly refusing to move.
Lohan, specifically, is so convincingly enervating as a woman many people will read as a non-acting Lindsay Lohan, that when she delivers lines like "Sorry if I seemed out of it," or "Happy? Who's really happy?" it feels like she's off-script. And as incorrect as the the perceptions of adult film professionals may be, Deen takes the idea of the extreme sexual narcissist and overlays it with a selfish, paranoid sneer, one that would guarantee he'd never work again if he brought it to his day job, where he has the reputation as the "nice guy of porn."
The movie talk continues, as the story sleepwalks toward inevitable violence -- a parallel to the shots of ruined theaters that keep coming -- but making movies turns to not making them, getting fired from them, dropping out of them, never even seeing them. Why? Because it's easier than making something actually happen. Or as Lohan says, tossing out anything she can think of as an excuse, "I guess movies just aren't my thing."