The creepiest haunted Hollywood movie since Mulholland Drive, David Cronenberg's Maps to the Stars is working an even deeper graveyard groove than David Lynch did. Where Lynch's 2001 Tinseltown takedown was a nasty noir bathed in shadows and evil portent, Cronenberg's vision is as bright as a sunlamp, sterile as an operating theatre and still as a morgue. Everyone there seems already dead or well on their way, which means those who actually do die in the movie might be the lucky ones. Anything beats "living" here.
Based on an original script by novelist Bruce Wagner (I'm Losing You), Maps to the Stars tracks the arrival in Hollywood of a starstruck young woman named Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), who rolls off the bus from Jupiter, Fla., and right into Robert Pattinson's limo. (When last seen in a Cronenberg movie – Cosmopolis – Pattinson was also in a limo, but this time he's driving.) She wants to see the stars' homes, but her intentions are more ambitious than snapping off a few selfies. Agatha's got designs on this town and some particular people within it, and her arrival sets off a chain reaction of dread and panic that brings secrets bubbling to the surface of the movie's many recurring water reservoirs: pools, baths, sinks and even toilets.
This is a place where everything flushed eventually flushes back, and by the end of Maps to the Stars, the septic tank slops over with blood, murder, madness and incest. All staple elements on the surface of most showbiz attractions, but in Cronenberg and Wagner's cruelly mordant calculation – like Billy (Sunset Boulevard) Wilder's, Roman (Chinatown) Polanski's, Robert (The Player) Altman and Lynch's – embedded also in the soil of Hollywood. That certain characters literally see ghosts in the movie should therefore come as no surprise. That they're surprised when they do does.
As contra-Hollywood in its form as it is in content, Maps to the Stars is remorselessly chilly, austere and anti-naturalistic. Characters are spatially isolated within their own hermetic close-ups, background sound is dropped out to enhance the echo-chamber effect, and most of the physical environments – even those on public landmarks such as Sunset Boulevard – seem as depleted of warm bodies and real-world referents as if the world itself had ended and Hollywood repopulated by extras beamed in from an extraterrestrial central-casting agency. Howard Shore's near-ambient score doesn't help warm things up.
It's a sphere and tone familiar from such recent Cronenberg movies as A Dangerous Method and especially Cosmopolis, only in this case the contrast between the aura of museum diorama embalmment and subject of puerile entertainment (nowhere more stark than in Cronenberg's treatment of the making of a movie called Bad Babysitter 2) renders the movie a truly disconcerting but transfixing viewing experience: Too severe to be funny but too grotesque to pass as straight drama, Maps inhabits a zone somewhere between soap, satire and deadpan performance art.
But for all its insistence on a dead world, depleted souls and predatory social Darwinism, Maps is hardly bereft of surplus human heat, especially in the performances. As the past-prime actress Havana Segrand, who compensates for both bodily and professional decline with an endless regimen of massage, therapy, pills, denial and crying jags, Julianne Moore is sensationally raw and immediate, a (sometimes literally) naked portrait in desperation that's at times wrenching to watch. And as her massage therapist and psychic guru Dr. Stafford Weiss, John Cusack locates a core of sinister manipulativeness that's only the more effective for playing off the actor's almost industrial-strength likeability. Playing possibly the most callous child actor ever born, Evan Bird almost steals the show.
As in most Cronenberg movies – think The Fly, Videodrome, Dead Ringers, Crash etc. – Maps pits the weakness of human flesh against the cruelty of human desire, and observes a world where entire factories of ingenuity have been deployed to fight nature and deny mortality. In Cronenberg's world, it's the essential human condition: Technological progress is defined by the endless pursuit of evading the inevitable. So here he is finally in Hollywood, a city which was built on the dreams of never getting old, never getting ugly, never letting nature takes its natural course. The only question, then, is what's taken him so long?