Starring: Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson
The Weiss family are a family who live in Hollywood, having all the wealth and privilege they could desire; Stafford Weiss (John Cusack) is a psychotherapist to the stars who has made a fortune from writing self-help books, while his emotionally fragile wife Christina (Olivia Williams) acts as the manager for their 13 year old son Benjie (Evan Bird) who is a very famous child star of a popular TV series and has just come out of drug rehab. The family also harbours many dark secrets just under the surface including their 18 year old daughter who they know has just been released from a Florida sanatorium.
One of Stafford’s patients is faded actress Havana Segrand (Moore), who is desperate to land a part in a film which is a remake of a film that her mother, Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon) won an Oscar for, not only that, Havana intends to play the same character her mother did. She is mentally unstable, taking high doses of various pills and haunted by visions of her dead mother. Havana also takes on a new assistant (or chore hoar as she delicately phrases it), called Agatha (Wasikowska) a girl new to Hollywood with burns scars who has her own personal vendettas to resolve. Meanwhile they are both driven around by limousine driver Jerome (Pattinson) who has ambitions to be an actor and a screenwriter. The murky lives of all these characters that will stop at nothing for success continually cross each other as their desperation, bitterness and self hatred lead to devastating consequences.
There certainly is little demand for yet another film depicting the nasty and selfish world of Hollywood. After all it is hardly something we are unaware of and usually these films contain characters who it is often impossible to relate to due to their extreme privilege, not to mention the fact these films dangerously flirt with self indulgence and have a deluded lecture-like tone and sense of self importance. However, if it happens to be directed by one David Cronenberg then that may be another matter. With his films from the last couple of decades including Crash, A History of Violence, Spider, A Dangerous Method and Cosmopolis examining the dark side of human psychology with a more subtle but all the more unnerving and sinister approach than the body horror of his earlier films, it almost seems that Maps to the Stars is almost overdue. Well the Canadian director’s first film set in Tinsel Town does not disappoint; it is a dark, bleak psychological and satirical drama that certainly has its fair share of jet black comedy. It is an expertly written and acted drama with a venomous satirical bite, containing a sometimes unbearable atmosphere of vile nastiness, but yet is incredibly compelling from start to finish.
The key to why Maps to the Stars is such a great drama is that Cronenberg and screenwriter Bruce Wagner skilfully avoid all the aforementioned potential pitfalls and maintain a consistent tone throughout the narrative. There is never a hint of patronising, lecturing or self indulgence; this is a film that respects the intelligence and awareness of its audience. The narrative throws us head first into the lives of these unsavoury characters, and makes no apology for it. We get to know who they are through their conversations with each other and fellow unpleasant characters that will only appear in one scene and we are left to solely draw our own conclusions, instantly making the narrative far more rewarding viewing.
The characters are unashamedly portrayed as deeply unpleasant in various ways, and it is full credit to Cronenberg (who has a reputation for getting the very best out of his actors) and his ensemble cast that the characters are never sympathetic, but yet watching them proves to be compelling viewing. Julianne Moore steals the show; her portrayal of a genuinely horrible character permanently on the edge of her sanity, whether this is feelings of despair or ecstasy, is at times truly unnerving but never anything less than gripping viewing. Mia Wasikowska continues her excellent year with another superb turn as a deeply unhinged character with a dark past; it is her character that ultimately drives the narrative and what happens to its main protagonists and she captures the dark psychological torment she is hiding from others brilliantly in her performance. John Cusack is wonderfully sleazy as the stoic self-help guru Stafford, and as Benjie, Evan Bird encapsulates perfectly the sense of entitlement that his extremely spoilt, born-into-fame teenager feels. The only actor that doesn’t really get much meat is Robert Pattinson, but he still plays his character well and his ambitious character still has a part to play. It does however seem obvious that this will not be Pattinson’s last film Cronenberg, and after his excellent performance in Cosmopolis expect another great team up in the future.
Though these characters are essentially walking clichés in isolation, but thanks to the script and performances Maps to the Stars simply uses these clichés to its advantage to take the audience deep into the dark realms of these characters’ minds. This is often a very unpleasant place, but, like our characters, it is so easy to want more and become addicted to the unpleasantness. Like many of Cronenberg’s films, Maps to the Stars is a horror film, but the horror simply is in the mental nightmare that each character creates for themselves, and is subsequently shared with the viewer. This produces a film that is often deeply uncomfortable viewing, as there is an undeniable atmosphere of tension surrounding these characters. Again, it would have been so easy to exaggerate everything, subsequently undermining its effectiveness, but the fact it is done with moments of subtlety or unpredictability makes it so much more effective. Simple conversations characters have with each other are delivered with such casualty that they bring often both nervous laughter and a genuine sense of unease, but yet are always strangely compelling.
The uneasy atmosphere of building tension is only enhanced by long term Cronenberg collaborator Howard Shore’s atmospheric and sometimes hypnotic score, and Peter Suschitzky’s cinematography that makes everything look unnervingly clean. Cronenberg himself is happy for his camera to remain largely static, letting the actors do the work and he often resorts to long takes to enhance the feeling of discomfort. We sometimes really don’t want to see certain things, but the camera just stays focussed on them. Despite this Maps to the Stars is a film that sucks the audience in just like its characters are sucked in by the excess and darkness of Hollywood, it is almost addictive viewing, but in the best possible way.
We all know Hollywood is an insular place at times, but the narrative does perhaps contain a few too many farfetched coincidences and contrivances through the way each character is connected to each other. Likewise the narrative at times feels a little episodic and stagey. However what would be massive problems in other films are utilised to maximum effect to tell what is an unnervingly dark, but yet extremely compelling tale, making such contrivances very forgivable. Maps to the Stars is undoubtedly not a film for everyone, and I am sure many will hate it, but this is a film that does not compromise for anyone, and in my view, is all the better for it and one of the very best films of 2014.
Cronenberg’s long overdue exploration of the dark side of Hollywood is a bleak and sinister masterpiece; Maps to the Stars is an uncompromising depiction of the darker side of humanity stopping at nothing to achieve what it wants (or thinks it needs), and thanks to its intelligent writing and exceptional performances is compelling and addictive viewing from start to finish.