While not in the vein of Cronenberg's classic body horror thrillers, the bleak showbiz satire Maps to the Stars could well be a horror film after all.
David Cronenberg hasn't made a science fiction or horror movie in over a decade. As he's moved on to extended collaborations with actors like Viggo Mortensen in A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, and A Dangerous Method, and now Robert Pattinson in Cosmopolis and the new Maps to the Stars, it's fun to see unsettling elements creep back into his more superficially respectable movies. Maps to the Stars doesn't make a full return to hardcore genre for Cronenberg, but by the end the journey, it feels at least half complete.
Pattinson, who spent most of Cosmopolis riding around in a limousine, gets demoted to limo driver for Maps. He plays Jerome, an aspiring actor who picks up Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) when she arrives in Los Angeles at the beginning of the film. Agatha is also looking to break into the business, sort of; she's also looking to break back into the lives of Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), a successful self-help guru, his wife Cristina (Olivia Williams), and their teenage movie star spawn Benjie (Evan Bird), for reasons that become more clear as the movie proceeds -- and then less clear, as Cronenberg and screenwriter Bruce Wagner reveal more monstrous behavior.
To work her way back into the Hollywood scene, Agatha gets a job as the personal assistant of fading actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), which seems both unlikely and believable. Such is the skill of Wasikowska's performance; she drops what has become her trademark peevishness, speaking instead with an optimistic-sounding uptalk. Agatha has plenty in her background and in her physicality (she wears gloves to cover up burns on her hands and arms) that might render her timid and tentative, but in many of her scenes, even emotional ones, Wasikowska gives her steady, unnerving calm.
As these Los Angeles lives intertwine, most of the movie's craziest revelations are telegraphed by Cronenberg's clinical perversity. Some of these don't even register right away, because they're announced with such an even, untroubled deadpan. And despite their entanglements, the characters remain isolated visually; most of the shots in the film that contain people are one-shots. This might make the movie feel glassed-in, but it's not without purpose. The characters talk to each other, but only occasionally connect, especially Weiss, who seems to have built a career on not particularly listening to anyone, and Moore's Havana, whose friendly bond with Agatha looks more and more like a narcissistic performance.
Moore, playing a more outsized character than she did in Still Alice, does memorable work as Havana, masking her breakdowns with smiles and well wishes, while Cusack finds a more productive outlet for those dark inclinations he's showed while playing hitmen and sleazebags in forgettable thrillers (see the recent Grand Piano). Cronenberg undercuts the relative fame of his cast by having the most famous character in the world of the movie (the foulmouthed Benjie) played by the least famous member of the cast (Evan Bird). He looks like a bit like Justin Beiber, but with slightly askew features, such as a long neck that suggests some growing pains. He's a Hollywood type, seen through a spook-house mirror.
Maps to the Stars is Cronenberg's first film partly shot in the US, but he limits his Los Angeles images to some recognizable exteriors. Much of the rest of the movie was shot, like so many of his others, in the director's native Canada. If it's not difficult to tell that Toronto subs for Hollywood in lots of scenes (especially once some Degrassi actors turn up in small roles), well, Justin Beiber is Canadian, too -- and the lack of genuine LA glamour adds to the movie's alienation effects.
That alienation seems more important to Cronenberg than scoring points against the Hollywood establishment. Maps to the Stars might seem on its surface to be an obvious and clueless Hollywood satire. But to my ears, the industry patter here sounds current and convincing enough: Moore describes a part as "made for Best Supporting"; Benjie's Bad Babysitter franchise appears to be appropriately derivative. Still, that authenticity ultimately doesn't matter much, because Maps to the Stars is not principally a satire of Hollywood. That material functions more like dark window dressing, elaborate decoration around characters who are profoundly disturbed. Maps to the Stars reveals buried secrets, some violence, and frequent visions of ghosts. Maybe it is a horror movie, after all.