Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Canyons

(Paul Schrader, USA, 2014)

As a fan of Schrader, I'm inclined to grade this bleak, moody, shoestring-cheap foray on a pretty steep curve.  In a way, it's fascinating to see what amounts to a kind of experimental film: what do you do when you take Schrader, a veteran director, and a visionary to boot, and pair him with a so-so script by a writer (Ellis) of a distantly related sensibility, and almost nothing in the way of a budget?  The one thing to add, it appears, and which saves the film from catastrophe, is cast Lindsay Lohan.  She is undeniably terrific, showing a heroic range of talent: vulnerable, haunted, feisty, sexy, terrified.  Most of the best stuff in the film is simply Schrader knowing how to frame her face; with her reactivity, her skittishness, her summoning courage (almost all of which has meta-textual resonance, adding to its potency) she turns the film from a tawdry exercise in well-trod territory (especially for Ellis, who seems to have written the script in a single afternoon, possibly while napping) into something that actually contains flashes of greatness.

Lots of other crap intrudes.  Too often, Schrader is forced to settle for second (or third, or fifth) best.  His cast (excepting Lohan) are game but woefully ill-equipped, the script is sloppy, the camerawork middling.  But the first scene is a kind of master-class in effective direction, and there are, again, moments that are simply charged with a dark, gloomy brilliance.  As always, Schrader's eye is one of a great moral seriousness, unable to turn away from the inescapable fact of sin.  His writing was the anguished Protestant that gave rise to some of Scorsese's most ornately Catholic creations, and true to his tradition, he remains the more raw and unstable of the two filmmakers.  He has very little of Scorsese's visual genius, but he has a psychological grasp that is perhaps unrivaled in contemporary American cinema.  Schrader is a working man's director.  Without the kind of afflatus of a Scorsese, he builds each film from scrap, with whatever is at hand.  His taste is inconsistent, his temperament is reckless.  He's still scrapping to get his films made, God bless him. 

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