"Things happen for a reason", someone says at one point in David Cronenberg's latest film. It's very likely that reason is actually "mapped out in the stars" - or by the stars that people Maps to the Stars, film stars and assorted hangers-on whose insecurity, neediness, bad judgement and general sense of debt condemn them to pay for their sins.
Mr. Cronenberg has come up with another morality play, in short, and it should be useful to keep in mind that Maps to the Stars follows the underwhelming Don de Lillo adaptation Cosmopolis. Despite the different results - Maps to the Stars is as disturbing and thought-provoking as Cosmopolis was a misfire - they're complementary works, sly satires of modern capitalism and celebrity culture painted as a limbo its inhabitants are desperately hoping to hang on to, with a fallen angel making a sudden reappearance to save this rotten system from itself.
The "chosen one", here, is Agatha (a mysterious, alluring Mia Wasikowska), newly arrived in Hollywood from Florida, her apparent easy-going, tag-along actions hiding a carefully designed agenda. Is her sidling to washed-up film actress Havana Segrand (a superb Julianne Moore), whose assistant she ends up being, and child star Benji Weiss (Evan Bird) mere coincidence? Or is it part of a greater plan that Bruce Wagner's script slowly unfolds as we dive deeper under the surface and start finding the skeletons hiding in the closet?
Mr. Cronenberg's gift, ever since his work shifted from what came to be described as "body horror" to a more psychological, disquieting take on the world (a shift discreetly announced by The Dead Zone and Dead Ringers), has been to give normalcy an eerie sheen, a strangeness that tilts it in such a way that the regular landmarks of "real life" suddenly seem out of focus. Hollywood's facade economy is a textbook case of warped reality that Mr. Wagner's script gleefully skewers (though some of his creations in Maps to the Stars seem to recycle some of what he wrote 20 years ago for the cult television serial Wild Palms, such as the mystical cult surrounding therapist to the stars Stafford Weiss, played connivingly by John Cusack).
But within this universe of delusional people who think money, power and status excuses all behaviours, Mr. Cronenberg insists on creating characters that are seriously grounded in reality, and are merely looking for ways to cope with the world around them. Delusional they may be, but they're also undeniably human and carrying a burden of sins of the body that have twisted and soiled their mind and must be atoned for.
In the process, it's worth pointing out just how much Mr. Cronenberg is unrecognised as an actor's director, able to focus, laser-sharp, on what each character requires and how best to get his performers there. Maps to the Stars has that in buckets, with a glorious Ms. Moore proving yet again how she is her generation's finest screen actress, her Havana so consumed by her obsession with her dead mother that she veers between haughty spite and moving vulnerability with nary a blink.
As with most of the director's latest work, Maps to the Stars does not reveal itself easily; it's a poison arrow of slow-release effect, unfolding gradually as the layers of ghosts at its heart make themselves visible and evoke the general sense of a corrupt system wafting through the world right now. But it proves, without the shadow of a doubt, that if you choose to dismiss Mr. Cronenberg's current work as minor or irrelevant, you do so at your own peril.
MAPS TO THE STARS
Canada, France, Germany 2014
Cast Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, Olivia Williams, Evan Bird, Sarah Gadon, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson
Director David Cronenberg; screenwriter Bruce Wagner; cinematographer Peter Suschitzky (colour); composer Howard Shore; designer Carol Spier; costumes Denise Cronenberg; editor Ronald Sanders; producers Martin Katz, Saïd ben Saïd and Michel Merkt; production companies Starmaps Productions, SBS Productions and Integral Film, in co-production with VIP Cinema/Axone Invest, in association with Prospero Pictures, with the participation of Téléfilm Canada, Canal Plus, Orange Cinéma Studio, The Howard Greenberg Fund, The Movie Network and Movie Central
Screened November 25th 2014, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon (distributor press screening)