Maps to the Stars, 2014.
Directed by David Cronenberg.
Starring Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson, John Cusack, Olivia Williams, Sarah Gadon and Evan Bird.
A tour into the heart of a Hollywood family chasing celebrity, one another and the relentless ghosts of their pasts.
Some plot details lie below…
Watching Maps To The Stars is like watching a waking nightmare, one you cannot wake up from and one you feel intimately part of – whether you like it or not. It is also a new kind of horror from film maker David Cronenberg, a film maker who made his name with superior bodyshock horror pictures, and may be the director at his most cynical since Videodrome over thirty years ago. All of this makes for a film experience which is as disturbing as it is humorous, yet never anything less than brilliant.
Maps To The Stars is like Robert Altman’s The Player by the way of Bret Easton Ellis at his darkest, teetering on a knife’s edge between sanity and insanity whilst high on drugs. The setting is Hollywood and the one thing the cast of highly unlikable characters have more than wealth and fame is an abundance of unhappiness. Matters only get worse when Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska, the best young actress in American movies today) arrives into town on a Greyhound bus looking to make amends with the parents which abandoned her after she set fire to their house as a child. Scarred from the fire, make-up free, and naive, Hollywood should chew her up and spit her out, but Agatha’s very presence will change the lives of many people.
Julianne Moore gives a performance which leaves nowhere to hide and nothing is too taboo as Havana Segrand, a Hollywood star who is tormented by nightmarish visions of her dead mother, a former beloved Hollywood actress, when she was a girl at the time she made her most critically acclaimed performance. Desperate not to be overlooked and clinging to whatever fame she has left, Havana wants nothing more than to lead the role of her mother in a remake of that film, and is doing everything she can to keep floating above the tide of filth and greed which one feels is due to wash over the industry at any moment in the film. In one scene which perfectly evokes the craftily balanced tone of the film between darkly humorous and unbearably sickening, Havana is seen skipping and dancing and singing after hearing the news of a ‘rival’ actress having lost her young son. This, we are to assume, isn’t a million miles away from reality, for the movie is like an expose of the desperation and degradation greed has on privileged people.
The same fate belies Agatha’s younger brother, Benjie; a child actor, who at only 13 years of age, has already been in rehab and spent all of his fortune ($300k a week when he was 9) and is already feeling the same fear of self worth as Havana, forty years his senior. Benjie is also haunted by a vision of a young fan whom he saw in hospital before she died; he offers her an iPad mini to make her feel better and drops box office figures to her as she lays in bed with tubes up her nose. As he leaves the hospital he berates his agent because the girl doesn’t have AIDS like Benji thought and it becomes all about his time which ‘wasted’. He ends up nearly strangling a co-star to death after one such vision; “It’s one child!” exclaims his mother, an equally awful person, after the production shuts down following the incident. She, like her son, has no respect for other people and it’s little wonder where he gets it from. He may be the most disturbing character in a film full of them.
Having watched all of Cronenberg’s films recently it’s amazing to see a director continue to make films of such intelligence and skilled craftsmanship, and not caring what the Hollywood system thinks of him. He is a director I’d imagine actors would crave to work with, and his style remains distinctly unflashy and decidedly simple yet highly effective, favouring medium close ups and allowing the actors to create the ‘magic’ rather than a multi-angled complex set-up. Both ways of working are, of course, fine in the right hands, but Cronenberg’s work never feels anything less than authentic and he shows no signs of losing his identity as a film maker as this recent quite suggests:
“I got a phone call once asking if I was interested in directing one of the Star Wars sequels…and instead of saying ‘Oh my God, yes!’ I said, ‘Well, you know, I don’t really do other people’s material.’ Click. I don’t know how far it would have gone, but it ended there.”
There are plenty of plot details I don’t wish to reveal and, really, you’re not seeing the film because of what it’s about, but because it’s the latest David Cronenberg film; there is no other reason needed. It is a hard, nasty, sickly film but one you cannot escape from the moment long-time collaborating composer Howard Shore’s hypnotic score begins. It’s a world as grim as anything seen in Crash, Videodrome, or Scanners but all the more unsettling because it exists. It’s a hard film to ‘like’ but it easy to appreciate the quality of what you’ve seen.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Rohan Morbey – follow me on Twitter.