Whether we’ve been there or not (and I confess I haven’t) we feel like we know Los Angeles. We’ve seen the films, we’ve read the books, and the gossip of tinsel town is stuffed down our throats at every turn. We know what a soulless, dangerous and corrupt hole LA is, filled with broken dreams and wannabe actors. Admittedly, these days, it’s far more fashionable to spout the contrary view: that LA is actually cool, cultured and sophisticated; you just have to know the right places to go amidst its vast freeways and sprawling suburbs.
Well, no amount of positive spin is going to turn two new LA-set films into tourist advertisements: David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, set in the creepy film biz-obsessed Hollywood hills, and Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, situated within the dark and dirty underworld of scavengers seeking news video footage on the streets of LA (car crashes, fires and murders). Both films are peopled by monsters who may look human, but are actually spiritually deformed and morally repugnant creatures of the most loathsome kind. The suggestion implicit in each of these thrillingly creepy stories is that these ‘freaks’ are born out of and adapted to the hellish spiritual landscape of LA.
In Maps to the Stars we meet ageing actress Havana Segrand (played with relish by Julianne Moore, who won the Best Actress Award at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival for her deliciously funny performance). She’s a familiar archetype: the diva-monster, whose lineage stretches back to the original vain and fading movie star, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in Billy Wilder’s 1950 LA noir Sunset Boulevard. With her blazing red hair extensions, puffed up lips and predilection for New Age remedies, she’s a blowsy collection of neuroses and pretensions, desperate to land a role in a remake of a movie that originally starred her own mother – a far more successful actress who died in a mysterious fire. Havana is so rotten she even dances a jig when a child’s death allows her to get a role.
Into the orbit of this fading star comes Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), who’s just been released from an asylum. She takes a job as Havana’s ‘chore whore’ – aka her personal assistant. Agatha bears extensive burn scars down half of her face (the film’s sole reference to Cronenberg’s fascination with body-horror) and her estranged family seem terrified she’s back. They include her 13-year-old child star brother (played by Evan Bird) who’s recently returned from rehab, and their Reiki-obsessed self-help guru father (John Cusack), who is truly a nasty piece of work. Incest and Oedipal madness are mixed with snatches of ghost story, and bursts of murder. Everyone wants to be famous here, and death is the only escape from the rottenness at the core. It’s bleak, funny and twisted.
So too is Nightcrawler, which stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom – with eyes so huge, dark and hollowed out that he looks like a nocturnal creature that evolved underground. Lou seems to be a spiritual descendant of Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro). He’s a self-educated outcast, scavenging for copper wire and committing petty theft, until he discovers a new way to make a living: by tuning into police radio frequencies and filming up close the nightly disasters that befall LA.
Lou is a survivor completely devoid of empathy. He’s morally appalling – a true psychopath, with deadpan entrepreneurial delusions of running a ‘successful TV news business’. Like a cockroach, he’s evolved to thrive in harsh economic conditions, supporting the thesis put forward by commentators like Paul Verhage, that neoliberalism rewards psychopathic personality traits.
Lou sells his footage to a hungry TV news producer, Nina (played by Rene Russo, who beautifully conveys the hard desperation of an aging news veteran whose contract is coming to a close). ‘Think of our newscast as a screaming woman, running down the street, with her throat cut,’ says Nina. She’s a different kind of creep, but unlike Lou you get the sense she knows what she is, and feels the smallest bit of sadness about it.
It’s possible to read Nightcrawler and Maps to the Stars as satires critiquing our media saturated society. Like the LA monsters of these films, we’re all consumers and products of the world’s incestuous, biggest, most carnivorous dream factory. We’re all narcissists, and we’re all voyeurs. Both films also work on their own terms as pure entertainment – Maps as a comic nightmare; and Nightcrawler as a stylish and exciting thriller. It’s possible in the end, to just sit back and enjoy the antics of these psychopaths – and be grateful they only exist in the world inside the screen.
Maps to the Stars is released 20 November. Nightcrawler is released 27 November.