Hollywood loves pointing the camera on itself but not since The Player has the selfie provided such a wonderfully sadistic portrait of Tinsel Town. At the centre of David Cronenberg’s film is a Hollywood family — played by John Cusack, Olivia Williams and Evan Bird. Orbiting them are a former big name actress (Julianne Moore) and a burn victim (Mia Wasikowska), whose presence threatens to expose closely guarded secrets. The terrific performances and decidedly un-Hollywood feel of this, the most Hollywood of Cronenberg’s films, make Maps a compelling psychological thriller.
Hollywood — self-obsessed child that it is — enjoys turning the camera on itself, but with Maps to the Stars, director David Cronenberg uses the city as a palette to paint a picture of the stupid, venal and stratospherically self-involved behaviour that goes on behind the scenes in Beverly Hills’s gated communities and back lots.
At the centre of the film are the Weisses, a Hollywood family (John Cusack, Olivia Williams and Evan Bird) with more secrets than TMZ’s too-hot-to-handle file, Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), a former big name actress who is now as messed up as she is washed up and Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a burn victim with schizophrenia whose presence threatens to expose closely guarded secrets.
This may be the most sun-dappled film Cronenberg has ever made, but don’t let the light fool you; it’s also one of his darkest. I say one of his darkest because the 71-year-old director has frequently visited what Victor Hugo called “night within us,” provoking Village Voice to call him, “the most audacious and challenging narrative director in the English-speaking world.”
Spider, a trip into the mind of a severely mentally disturbed man starring Ralph Fiennes, is a case in point. Called “Cronenberg’s most depressingly bleak film,” by critic Ken Hanke, the 2002 film sees Fiennes deliver a virtually dialogue-free performance as the title character. But it is Miranda Richardson as several characters — all the women in Spider’s life — who really steals the show. It’s a spooky, cerebral thriller.
The Brood is probably Cronenberg’s most traditional horror film. Featuring murderous psychoplasmic kids, experimental psychotherapist Oliver Reed and Samantha Eggar as a fetus-licking mother, it is the very stuff that nightmares are made of. It’s lesser seen than The Fly or Dead Zone and way more down-and-dirty, but for sheer scares it’s hard to beat.
A Dangerous Mind, the tautly told story of two psychoanalysts you’ve heard of, Dr. Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), plus one you’ve probably never heard of, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), sees Cronenberg combine a love story and birth of modern analysis.
The almost total lack of physical action means the focus is on the words. Some will see a film rich with dialogue, others will see it as verbose. But that’s the kind of duality the movie explores.
Finally, in Cosmopolis, Cronenberg takes us along for an existential road trip through the breakdown of modern society. Based on a novel by Don DeLillo and starring Robert Pattinson as a controlling and self-destructive billionaire money manager, the movie covers the gamut of human experience, from haircuts, money and infidelity to asymmetrical prostates and mortality.
Richard: I am an unabashed fan of David Cronenberg. I felt like a kid in a candy store — or should that be an entomologist at a larvae convention? — at the exhibition and I regularly revisit his movies on DVD. One that always gets overlooked is Spider, a trip into the mind of a severely mentally disturbed man starring Ralph Fiennes. Fiennes is great in a virtually dialogue free performance but it is Miranda Richardson as several characters — all the women in Spider’s life — who really steals the show. It’s a spooky and cerebral thriller.
Mark: Spider was never one of my favourites although it does have a great twist ending. My thoughts on the Cronenberg oeuvre — and they’re almost all great — is how ahead of his time he’s been on our relationship to technology. When Videodrome came out, it was dismissed by a lot of critics. Now we live its reality every day. Same with Existenz. Both visionary films that prove how far ahead of the curve the director can be. But I think the quintessential Cronenberg film is Dead Ringers — a creepy Hitchcockian thriller that has Third Reich overtones of medical experiments and twins — and also because Cronenberg himself looks like a gynecologist harboring a terrible secret.
RC: I also have a soft spot for The Brood. It’s probably Cronenberg’s most traditional horror film, and I take delight in loving a movie Leonard Maltin rated a “Bomb.” Featuring Oliver Reed as an experimental psychotherapist, Samantha Eggar as a fetus-licking mother and murderous psychoplasmic offspring, it is the very stuff that nightmares are made of. It’s lesser seen than The Fly or Dead Zone and way more down-and-dirty, but for sheer scares it’s hard to beat.
MB: I like the brood but I prefer the Dead Zone even though legend has it that Cronenberg regretted doing a movie with all the incumbent studio interference. Know what? It still works. But Cronenberg will forever be one of my favourite directors if for no other reason than breathing life into Naked Lunch. A book I should have loved but could never get through — until I saw the film.
RC: He’s audacious. He made an unfilmable book filmable and opened a lot of people’s minds to reading author William S. Burroughs.
MB: He did the same thing with Cosmopolis, although I must say I didn’t need to see Rabid to appreciate Marilyn Chambers.
David Cronenberg’s latest film is a trip into the mind of a severely mentally disturbed man. Institutionalized for twenty years after the death of his mother Dennis “Spider” Cleg (Ralph Fiennes) is released to a halfway house, and tries, shattered though his mind may be, to piece together the shards of his life. Fiennes delivers a fine, virtually dialogue free performance as the title character, but it is Miranda Richardson as several characters – all the women in Spider’s life – who really steals the show. Cronenberg handles the material with elegance, shooting 1950s London in shades of grey and beige, a color scheme that telegraphs the shadowy world that Spider inhabits. A spooky, cerebral thriller.