Maps to the Stars
David Cronenberg’s typically twisted dissection of Hollywoods and would-bes gets under the skin like nothing he’s made in a decade. If the hermetic cocoon of Cosmopolis represented a return to the territory of less grounded narratives after a series of (for him) formally concrete pictures with Viggo Mortensen, Maps to the Stars seals that deal. An exploration of superficiality and emptiness, and the darkness that lurks within, his film from Bruce Wagner’s screenplay is very much not a Tinseltown satire, although it nevertheless conveys the requisite barbs and props. Rather, Maps to the Stars is a claustrophobic horror, its jaundice deriving from the existential isolation of its disparate protagonists.
The focus is the supremely dysfunctional Weiss family, led by self-help jockey Stafford (John Cusack, at his most dead-behind-the-eyes and remote). Wife Christina (Olivia Williams) takes care of the management of their son and child star (for the Bad Babysitter movie franchise) Benjie (Evan Bird). He’s an obnoxious, spoilt thirteen-year-old who has just done a stint in rehab. Wagner draws on many a recognisable trope here, including Drew Barrymore-esque childhood drug addiction and therapies that indulge the recipient’s yearning for self-glorification rather than real spiritual advancement. The family shares a soullessly airy house and are fundamentally detached from each other, partners in a business (although Christina carries around the burden and responsibility of self-blame for the past).
Their first dark secret is daughter Agatha (Mia Wasikowska,; I don’t think she has it in her to give a poor performance). Schizophrenic, she was committed to a mental hospital and has just been released (“Free, white and eighteen”). Agatha gave her brother pills and burnt the house down (suffering burns in the process) after rehearsing a bizarre ritual in which she and her brother were married. Her family establishes Agatha as an object of fear. In her first scene we assume she’s a straight up fantasist, telling limo driver Jerome (Robert Pattison, much less effective here than in Cosmopolis) she met Carrie Fisher on Twitter and is helping her out with a book. Then we discover this is true. Agatha is barking, but she’s also the most sympathetic character in the film by some distance. Although, peeling back layers as he does, Cronenberg gradually reveals obnoxious Benjie also has unsuspected depths.
The adults, even Christina, are dangerously deluded. There’s Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), a fading star who takes on Agatha as her PA. Havana is intent on starring in a remake of a film her mother made, the same mother who abused her as a child. Havana knows this because she has been working through her trauma with Stafford (“I’m going to press on a personal history point”). When she learns her main competition for the role will be dropping out due to the death of her son, she doesn’t even try to conceal her joy; ghoulish indeed. This lack of empathy is echoed later when Benjie, afflicted by visions of a dead girl he visited in hospital, attempts to strangle his young co-star; Christina cannot believe the fuss created (“He hurt one boy. One boy”).
There’s a sense that Agatha’s return to LA has in some way precipitated this unravelling. She saw visions prior to setting the house alight. Benjie begins seeing visions also, and Havana is haunted by her dead mother. Even Stafford is in on seeing things that aren’t there by the end, freaked out by Christina apparently self-immolating by the swimming pool. There is a common thread of incest weaving through these relationships (the big reveal is that Stafford and Christina discovered they were brother and sister, which Agatha found out, although it seems like a bit of a stretch they could manage to maintain this deception living in the muck-raking Hollywood spotlight), and also unusual territory for Cronenberg: that of ghosts.
He rejects such possibilities, citing The Exorcist as a film he couldn’t have convincingly made because he has no grounding in its subject matter (“Belief in ghosts is religious belief, I don’t believe in afterlife”). As a result, he interprets the visions of Maps to the Stars as deriving from those haunted by memories. Whether Wagner sees it that way is another matter (he doesn’t, but for the most part deferred to his director’s outlook). Certainly, there’s an unusual psychic theme that connects the characters in a tapestry of strange visions (why does Benjie see the actress’ dead son, with whom he has no connection)? The other obvious reading here is that the incest theme is a reflection of an incestuous movie town, but that feels a little too on the nose.
The inescapable past manifests not only as visions but leads to very physical fallouts. Havana, having got what she wants, rejects Agatha, but not before having sex with Jerome (whom Agatha has been seeing and who refers to her rather coldly as “research”). Havana’s hysterical character assassination of Agatha, who by this point has stopped taking her meds, leads to the darkly poetic justice of Agatha beating her employer to death with one of her acting awards.
The most shocking scene, however, comes when Agatha visits Christina. Stafford, who has already warned his daughter to stay away, enters and begins punching her repeatedly in the stomach. This is the man who has made a mini-industry from giving others back their self-control but who is unable to martial his own. The lore of synchronicity he feeds Havana (“People don’t just enter our lives randomly”; “Things happened for a reason. I’m a big believer in that”) is one he is ill-prepared for in his own life, even though he protests otherwise (“You can’t have actually believed I would let you come back and fuck up my world again”). In the end, Cusack’s is the most disturbing character in a discordant symphony of disturbed characters.
Agatha is proactive enough to introduce finality and change. Wagner refers to her as the sanest character in the movie, which may not be saying much, but she succeeds in ending the destructive cycles others have allowed to perpetuate.
She believes the screenplay she has in mind as a “beautiful mythological story”, the only palatable way of telling of her parent’s incest. But everyone is distancing themselves from their pasts by monetising them; Havana with her mother’s film; Agatha with her script; Jerome planning to write about Agatha; Stafford making Havana relive her traumas. Even Benjie’s biggest success proves to have a connection to their past (“I was the original Bad Babysitter Agatha” she tells Jerome, referring to her attempt to kill her brother). There are also examples of strange, elusive rituals throughout. Where does Stafford’s help methodology come from? Did he devise it himself? Why is the girl Benjie sees covered in strange symbols? And then there’s Agatha’s marriage/death rite (and the final use of the poem Liberty in the film, which links the characters and becomes a kind of summoning tool), complete with her conviction that removing her parents’ wedding rings will break the spell.
There’s a strong whiff of death and decay in the air of Maps to the Stars, contrasting with airy LA environment (something also present in Sunset Boulevard). Alongside are common Cronenberg themes of metamorphosis, mutation and empty mortality. While the characters are vibrant, the familiar cool distancing of many of his more noteworthy pictures (such as Dead Ringers) is present and correct. Cronenberg has an unflinching eye for the macabre and disturbed, and the blackly comic (the scene where Benjie accidentally shoots a friend’s dog is a minor classic, as we just know there must be a bullet still in the chamber throughout).
I don’t know if Maps to the Stars will be come to be seen as one of Cronenberg’s classics. It doesn’t feel quite as locked and precise as his very best work (the old movie with Havana’s mother looks nothing less than a recently shot digital movie) but it casts a compelling spell, a Greek tragedy reconfigured. You may not even be sure if you liked it, but you won’t be able to take your eyes off it.