Maps to the Stars opens with a simple credit sequence against a painted backdrop of stars in the sky. There’s a kind of pun intended. The maps referred to in the title are more prosaic—the tourist maps that you can buy in Hollywood that can guide you to the neighborhoods and homes of various movie stars.
The story takes place in Hollywood, where middle-aged actress Havana Segrand, played by Julianne Moore, is fighting to land a part in a film playing her own mother, herself a famous actress who died at a young age from setting herself on fire. To say that there’s something unhealthy here is an understatement. Havana is undergoing intensive therapy because of her mother who incested her as a child. Occasional scolding visits from the ghost of her dead mother naturally make Havana think that she’s losing her mind. Her therapist, Stafford Weiss, played by John Cusack, combines a kind of gestalt method with some unorthodox physical techniques, and an assortment of pseudo-spiritual clichés. His 13-year-old son Benjie, played by Evan Bird, is a child star returning from drug rehab to act in the sequel to his franchise hit Bad Babysitter. Fitting into this interlocking puzzle somehow is a drifter from Florida named Agatha, played by an almost unrecognizable Mia Wasikowksa, who lands a job as Havana’s personal assistant because her scars from a fire remind the actress of her mother’s self-immolation.
The screenplay is by Bruce Wagner, himself an offbeat Hollywood maverick, whose credits include the weird and under-seen miniseries Wild Palms. The director is the great David Cronenberg, who here returns to his specialty of psychological horror flavored with a very dark sense of humor, so dark that you might forget to laugh. I’ll take the opportunity to say right now that this is not a family film, and that if you don’t like being disturbed or provoked, you might as well forget it. It has a sort of rough, in-your-face quality that reminds me a little of the early 1970s, before American film lost its nerve and started to hedge its bets. Cronenberg wants you to be uncomfortable, because that’s where the dramatic juice is.
Now there’s what you might call double vision at work here, or artistic X-ray vision, because on the one hand, you have characters with a selfishness and superficiality that is almost breathtaking—skewering not just Hollywood as a place, but as a state of mind. On the other hand, or to be more accurate underneath all this, there are the real emotions and issues at stake, and at the center of this festering wound is incest, incest as a condition swallowing up the lives of everyone in sight. Cronenberg and Wagner follow this trail to the end with startling conviction.
Julianne Moore once again demonstrates her complete dedication and lack of vanity as an actress. She’s fantastic. John Cusack, and Olivia Williams as his wife, are scary good, and Wasikowska in my view turns in her best work ever. Also on hand is Robert Pattinson as an opportunistic chauffeur peddling a movie script. Maps to the Stars pulls off a really difficult feat—fearlessly portraying a place of cynicism without succumbing to it. It’s the opposite of a slick entertainment, raw and surprising all the way.