A new David Cronenberg film is something that garners equal parts excitement and trepidation these days. Excitement because his films are nothing if not a consistent exploration of various themes and ideas centering around the human body and mind that always give some food for thought afterwards, and trepidation because, given his track record, and his recent, more questionable output, there’s the ever-present danger that this will be that one feature that is his one unanimous bad egg that breaks his 40-year combo. Reassuringly, Maps To The Stars is proof once again that if there’s one film-maker to be relied on, it’s Cronenberg. Based on an older screenplay-turned-novel-turned-screenplay by Bruce Wagner, Maps is perhaps the most distinctive picture Cronenberg has produced since 1999’s eXisteNz, and manages to take cues and themes from all of his previous work to date in a marriage of both the body and mind, horror and drama that he has become so synonymous with.
Taking a grim look at the seedy underbelly of the high-life of Hollywood, Maps follows a half-dozen select characters who represent an inter-woven plot of the incestuous life of remaining a celebrity in Los Angeles. This ensemble, led in a dual narrative by a tormented, narcissistic Havana Segrand, played by Julianne Moore, and Justin Bieber-satire Benjie Weiss, played by Evan Bird, worms its way together on-screen in what feels like an incredibly precise, incredibly coldly choreographed car crash of good intentions and bad people. Each member, filled out by John Cusack as celebrity therapist Dr. Stanford Weiss, Mia Wasikowska’s Agatha and Robert Pattinson’s limo driver Jerome Fontanct, plays their part succinctly in this disasterpiece in slowly offsetting each other’s path to allow the the two stories to make their way together and the unwilling tragedy unfold.
The very obviously jaded story-telling plays very nicely with the setting, creating an atmosphere that manages to not feel begrudging or cynical, but rather simply honest and bold, with a slightly large portion of dislike to boot. Julianne’s performance as Havana is startling, her turns from self-obsessive, impulsive socialite to near-complete psychosis give the film this knife-edge feeling that not only feeds into the unpredictability, but keeps with odd key-changes that frenetically appear through-out thanks to a somewhat ghostly sub-plot. These haunting episodes are almost cruel in their execution on screen, with Wagner’s screenplay feeling like torture at times for the characters, or at least it would, if the performances weren’t so strong across the board going along with Moore’s that everyone is the right level of dislikeable that its almost exciting to see when they’ll be bullied next. It’s these pseudo-supernatural happenings that provide an ambient connection between Havana and Benjie and which allow the lane-changes to happen suddenly but without also feeling crass.
Mia’s Agatha is the real diamond in the rough here, though, and the character with which Cronenberg has most observably worked his magic with. She’s not only a very needed human counter-point to Havana’s despicable nature, but she also has the lofty position of having the most horror attached to her back-story and performance. Through-out the feature, Agatha keeps us in check, and takes us out of the guilty world into one of simpler innocence and more genuine reasoning. Its her relationship with Pattinson that allows his out-spoken performance to find its voice, a co-star position he revels in here. Their awkward romance gives some much-needed validity to her own character’s naivety, and a much-wanted break from the cesspool being shown in every other avenue.
It’s normally difficult to rate a David Cronenberg film accurately because, frankly, if you’re a fan you’ll be seeing it anyway, and if you’re not, the must-see films are already widely talked about. However, Maps To The Stars is easily one of his best of the last 20 years, and genuinely feels like the dark satirical drama it feels like he’s been trying to make most of that time. Darkly comedic, many of his hallmarks remain present and accounted, yet David has managed to make his most human feeling feature yet, with a mixed cast that each provides what feels like a key performance of their career. If there was any doubt after Cosmopolis of Cronenberg’s ability, this will clean it away and remind you why he never left your sights, and probably never will.
David Cronenberg simultaneously at his most human and his most grim. 9/10