Incest, abuse, Julianne Moore with constipation… it’s all here in David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, a psychological satire about Hollywood and its horrific inhabitants.
Cronenberg has always been obsessed with disease but this time the virus is celebrity culture, and Maps to the Stars is angry and painful like a rash, spreading out of control and infecting its repellent characters. These Hollywood egotists are more grotesque than the ickiest Cronenbergian parasites, even those phallic turd-like leeches from Shivers. But they’re also disturbingly familiar, whether its Julianne Moore’s self-obsessed actress, John Cusack’s self-help quack or Evan Bird’s self-destructive teenager.
Moore stands out in this impressive ensemble, earning her Cannes award and deserving more in the future. But just as praiseworthy are Mia Wasikowska, Olivia Williams and Robert Pattinson, whose performances this year in this and Aussie flick The Rover have proved his credentials, and proved wrong a number of critics. Ahem. His character drives a limo, which is both an inversion of his backseat role in Cronenberg’s previous movie Cosmopolis and an extension of writer Bruce Wagner’s own experience as a Hollywood limo driver. Wagner co-wrote the third A Nightmare on Elm Street movie with Wes Craven, Chuck Russell and Frank Darabont, which is always worth mentioning, and he brings a similarly nightmarish surrealism to this sordid satire of the movie industry.
Packaged like a sitcom but unfolding like Mulholland Drive, the film is shockingly funny, subversive and supernatural all at once, making it similar in tone to such TV shows as Six Feet Under or David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, but with its scalpel-like satire always poised on the poisonous people of Hollywood, like Swimming with Sharks but with more ghosts. Wagner and Cronenberg don’t have an ounce of affection for this subject between them, which is crucial to the film’s unflinching fearlessness.
The Canadian filmmaker has always benefited from his tendency to bypass the Hollywood machine, and it’s enthralling to watch North American cinema’s great outsider as he takes on its insipid insiders. He directs with that cool Cronenbergian detachment, exploring weird and taboo territory in a way we’ve not really seen from the auteur since 1996’s hugely controversial Crash. Even as he moves away from his trademark body horror, there’s a visceral quality to Cronenberg’s filmmaking that remains unparalleled, his drama eliciting as physical a reaction as his horror.
Despite one glaringly bad piece of CGI, Maps to the Stars is Cronenberg’s best film since Eastern Promises at least, simultaneously succeeding as a jet-black satire and a dark-hearted drama, with a coolly percussive score by long-term collaborator Howard Shore and a ferocious script by Wagner. Cronenberg refuses to mellow with age, and at 71 he still has the same power to shock. Long live the new flesh.