27 September 2014

We Didn't Start the Fire

My preference for dramas over comedies and the dark over the footloose and fancy-free is well documented, but even I found David Cronenberg's new film Maps to the Stars pretty damn bleak. As the film opens, the young, brooding Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) steps off a bus in Los Angeles and gets into the limo she has hired, driven by Jerome (Robert Pattinson). You can tell that something is off right away, because who travels by long-distance bus from Florida and then hops right into a $90-an-hour limo? She then asks Jerome if he has the eponymous map to the stars' houses and asks him to drive her to an empty lot just under the Hollywood sign, where some famous folks used to live.

It turns out that all of the characters in Maps to the Stars have troubling secrets and tragic pasts, and none of them is very likeable. Thanks to her Twitter friendship with Carrie Fisher (!), Agatha gets a job as the personal assistant to Havana (Julianne Moore), an ageing, narcissistic starlet who is facing numerous demons of her own. Most notably is that she is haunted by the ghost of her dead mother (Sarah Gadon), who won a Golden Globe and then died young in a fire — Havana's involvement in the fire remains unclear, especially given the hints that there may have been some abuse at the hands of her mother and step-father.

Havana's shrink, Dr Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), does his best to treat her in his own unique, hands-on way, but he is having some family troubles of his own: his precocious, child-actor son Benjie (Evan Bird) has just got out of rehab at the tender age of 13 and, having reached the awkward not-that-cute-anymore age, is struggling to get the roles he is used to. He, like everyone else in the film, is an entitled little arsehole and treats everyone, from his mother (Olivia Williams) to the tween girls with whom he hangs out, like crap.

The characters circle around one another, as we learn more about them and how they got to where they are, until the film's chilling climax. Wasikowska really steals the show here, with her unsettling portrayal of a troubled young woman, but Moore is also excellent and obviously had a lot of fun filming her role. Maps to the Stars isn't an easy film to watch and the story it tells of Hollywood and the people who occupy that world is disturbing and uncompromising. It reminded me in some way of David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, which remains one of my favourite films, with its dark themes and confused realities. Cronenberg's film is oddly compulsive — just don't go into it expecting a nice cheerful Saturday afternoon movie.

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