David Cronenberg’s name is inextricably tied to body horror. His first couple decades of filmmaking brought us gooey protrusions, sunken orifices, and unholy amalgamations of oozing flesh as bodies betrayed their owners again and again. In The Fly, Jeff Goldblum fused with an insect in a crumbling mutation. In Videodrome and eXistenZ, man and machine melded physiologies, while Dead Ringers and Crash featured close-ups of metal objects later inevitably plunged into human flesh. And in Scanners, heads explode. These memorably disquieting horror images, playing off the fear of our physical being’s fragility and ability to turn against us with disease and disgust, sealed his reputation as a conjurer of disturbing images.
But his last decade of filmmaking has found a larger body to tease apart and catch mid-decay: society. Look at A History of Violence, a gory drama picture about the lingering effects of murder, or Eastern Promises, a grim Euro-thriller about borders between crime and safety, punishment and brutality, or A Dangerous Method, a period piece of mental anguish at the dawn of psychiatry, or Cosmopolis, with a young billionare on a limo drive through an emotionally and economically deadening New York City. In these films Cronenberg finds violence, yes, but also metaphoric putrefying flesh, seeping sickness deep down in the guts of humanity. His clinical eye finds great drama and the darkest comedy in the damage people do to each other. Certainly, our bodies can betray us. But our actions can perpetuate cycles of damage to all those around us. We fail ourselves when we fail each other, parts of a whole, unpredictable and easily broken.
His latest film, Maps to the Stars, has often been mistaken for a Hollywood satire simply because it’s set in Los Angeles amongst a group of industry types who are, to a person, capable of awful behavior unsparingly detailed in bleakly humorous ways. But what else could it be but some kind of societal body horror when we are regarding poison seeping into the culture? The film looks at damaged people scrambling to work out their psychosexual dramas in public for our amusement on our screens. This isn’t satire. It’s a deeply cynical creepy/comic biopsy, turning up exaggerated rot underneath glamorous surfaces. (Or, at least you can only hope it’s exaggerated.) Imagine Altman’s The Player, but darker, ruder, more lacerating in its oddball effects.
Characters include: an aging actress (Julianne Moore), a hack self-help guru (John Cusack), his stunted teen star son (Evan Bird), the boy’s terse mom (Olivia Williams), a meek chauffer (Robert Pattinson), and a mysterious burn victim (Mia Wasikowska) who arrives on a bus from far away, determined to make it in Tinseltown. They cross paths, some victims of the same tangled tragic backstories (arson, abuse, addiction), others on the precipice of fresh tragedy (mistakes, murders, and Machiavels). Speaking in dryly, believably ridiculous dialogue from screenwriter Bruce Wagner, these people behave like shambling showbiz types, selfish, rapacious id-driven beings. They’ll screw or screw over anyone they care to, while yearning in vain for something to bring meaning to their lives.
Under an intense California sun, Peter Suschitzky’s cinematography so bright it’s practically scorching, performances move with a hollowed-out quality. The guru appears exhausted in his TV appearances, Cusack playing him as a man who doesn’t believe what he’s selling anymore, if he ever did. The middle-aged actress is scrambling to stop falling back down the industry ladder, grasping for a role made famous by her long-dead abusive movie star mother (Sarah Gadon). Moore’s performance is a tightrope walk of vanity and desperation, playing a character at once tragically damaged, overwhelmingly insecure, and monstrously shortsighted, hilarious and heartbreaking. A different sort of heartbreak is the teen star. He has a flat affect common to anyone his age, but his dull gaze shows a boy who has already been to rehab, has access to temptations everywhere, and who thinks he sees ghosts. Perhaps he does.
The characters are running from haunted pasts, with apparitions real, imagined, or half-remembered returning to mock their emptiness. It informs their current pain. They’ve achieved some level of material success, and yet can’t shake memories of and impulses towards abusive behaviors, deceit, addiction, and insanity. The most eerily self-possessed among these desperate people is Wasikowska’s creepy spin on the ingénue role. She drifts into entry-level jobs, interacts with these supposed stars with a calm sense of destiny. She’s moved by prophecy, a sense of inevitable destruction she’ll embrace by film’s end. This confident madness brings out the madness in others, especially as we learn the full extent of her unexpected connections to them. At every step, under Cronenberg’s rigorously sinister sense of humor, the ensemble plays out wickedly funny, unsparingly unsettling sadness, warped, specific, and yet recognizable.