With Cosmopolis, David Cronenberg, that one-of-a-kind director who delights in exploring the darkest twists and turns of cinematic language in order to illuminate our shadowiest corners, points his lens at a man so full of money he seems to have paid for it with his humanity. For those who think being so rich you have trouble spending all your money is something to aspire to, consider Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson). He’s a man so out of touch with his feelings, he needs death to find life. It’s a subject befitting Cronenberg’s seeming obsession with intellect, behavior and the material world, and the director certainly takes off running with it.
No matter what subject Cronenberg probes in his films, he has refined them over the years to exude a hyper-real, creepy atmosphere. This includes his most recent, seemingly straight-forward film, A Dangerous Method, an examination between Freud, Jung and their mutual patient Sabina Spielrein (An antidote for Oscar hype: My 20 favorite films of 2011 [numbers 20-10]). That film seemed fixated on bringing the writings and theories of psychology by this trio to life via ponderous dialogue. The battles between these intellectuals were fought in dialogue, and those words were often quite sharp.
Cosmopolis, a film that takes place in a prescient future of civil unrest where people like Packer cannot throw away their money fast enough, fits in snug with the Canadian director’s style, especially in his obsession with bringing to life the written word, similar to A Dangerous Method. Though the cinematic adaptation of Don Delillo’s 2003 book, this remains one of the most offbeat Cronenberg films since the surreal video game vortex that was eXistenZ, which shamed the Matrix on the year of both films’ release*. The dialogue of Delillo, too meandering and breathless to seem realistically possible, remains intact and only heightens the strange quality of the film.
The Cronenberg touch is there from the brief abstract, digitized opening title sequence, which features droplets of black, gray and brown paint a lá Jackson Pollack as they dribble onto an earthy, glowing orange canvas. Cronenberg has said opening titles offer an important gateway to a film, so it matters metaphorically. My only regret about the opening is that he does not allow it to continue longer, like the old days of film. A throbbing electronic pulse and the jangle of a swelling electric, reverbing guitar, recalling Edge’s playing for U2, provides the soundtrack that crescendos and then diminuendos in one sweep. As the end credits will reveal, Cronenberg regular Howard Shore is still his go-to for film scores, though this score, a collaboration with Canada’s synth-obsessed indie band Metric, feels different from any other in their history together. It still works well throughout the film as it pulses and rumbles to life on occasion in the film. The score often swells up out of silence, ticking and humming for highlighting certain moments of heightened exchanges between characters before diminishing and fading away, almost phantasmagoric in its shifting quality, heightening a sense of foreboding that permeates the film.
In the film’s first scene, a camera positioned low to the ground tracks across a fleet of white stretch limousines. One after another, the hulking metal tubes loom, awaiting launch into what seems to be New York City. Some of these might very well be decoys, as the film will imply Eric is a powerful, infamous executive many want to see dead. For all the criticism and expectation weighing on Pattinson as the kid in the Twilight films, his portrayal of Eric fits snug in the Cronenberg world. His sleepy eyelids and stiff jaw suit the character well, and even if the British actor’s version of an American accent might seem odd to some, it only adds to the distant alien quality of the character. Clearly exuding his Master of the Universe status, Eric exchanges terse sentences with his head of security, Torval (Kevin Durand). “I want a haircut.” “The president’s in town.” “We don’t care. We need a haircut.”
From these first lines, anyone who is a fan of Cronenberg knows they are in for something existing beyond an experience in life or in the movies, for that matter. The interior of the limo is sound proof to the point that all you hear are the voices of the people inside. It’s so disquieting that it reveals just how much one takes ambient noise for granted. The saturation of color, even between light and shadow seems so unreal that Jay Baruchel appears almost unrecognizable as he contorts his face stressing over Eric’s nagging, if monotone, questions of the security of their computer network. It marks the first of many meetings inside the limo, as the film features a parade of characters that typify the excesses of capitalism from hip computer geeks to slutty cougars to hollow rap stars, among the most obvious. Every once in a while Torval appears, offering his boss impromptu risk assessments that grow more and more sinister as the film progresses: “We have report of imminent activity in the area … nature as yet unknown.”
In the limo, Eric sits in what appears to be a throne with armrests that glow and flicker with data on money exchanges. The interior is all gorgeous lighting and symmetrical framing. Outside the windows the cityscape glides past so smooth it appears like a cheap green screen effect. But it’s also by design, as this guy may just be rich enough to afford limos that have the best shock absorbers money can buy. The bubble the limo provides also emphasizes his distance from the rest of the real world. With Cosmopolis, Cronenberg presents a snapshot of a creature of money, and he explores the expanse of imagination to show just how extremely rich Packer is. The man makes money by the “septillionths” of a second, hording it and spending it with no regard. Eric is prepared to buy whatever he wants, as everything has a price for him. During a meeting in the limo with an art dealer and casual sex partner Didi Fancher (Juliette Binoche) he tries to negotiate the purchase of the Rothko Chapel. It is also one of the few times he looks frustrated, as she tells him it’s not even for sale. “It belongs to the world,” she says. “It’s mine if I buy it,” he responds.
Other instances in the film where Eric seems frustrated occur in the company of his colder half, his new bride, Elise Shifrin (Sarah Gadon), revealed as a rich heiress who fancies herself a poet. She holds out sex, as he asks for it with little reserve. He cannot seem to find the soul required for the effort, it seems. He has already had sex on his throne inside the limo with Didi, who thrashes about like a giddy girl in reverse cowgirl. It may seem depraved, but it serves to illuminate how out of touch this man is. When Elise sees him after the deed, she says, “you smell of sex.” He shrugs and blames his prostate check-up in the car by a doctor who finds his gland “asymmetrical.”
The heightened stylization of acting and staging never rings hollow, though some have argued the film has little “story.” Instead, it meshes brilliantly with the subject matter on an almost surreal level. This is a film about something more than crossing town for a haircut. This is a man on a quest to feel something again. How many can know what life is like for a man as rich as this man? Eric becomes an enigma, enhancing his extreme, violent behavior during the film’s final scenes. Most everyone in the world of Cosmopolis seems to want to see the man dead, as riots blow up in the street and a final confrontation with a whispering unhinged character (Paul Giamatti) looms to cap off the film.
Cosmopolis ends on what seems an open-ended note. But what happens after the film cuts to black matters little compared to a slight glimpse of humanity revealed by what leads to whatever that end may be. Like the best Cronenberg films the moment is a mix of the banal and the extreme, highlighting the journey more than celebrating a pat conclusion. Cronenberg’s best films, Videodrome, A History of Violence and eXistenZ, present the audience with a mirror, and it can prove unpleasant for some, so knee-jerk responses by viewers might not all be flattering.
Cosmopolis maybe over-the-top and unreal, but its satirical sensibility is not far off the mark. One need not look further than a certain presidential candidate who drops $10,000 bets like they’re $5. Or pop culture mega millionaires with their own reality shows who have sacrificed their souls for portraying femme bots on television to sell high interest/short-term credit cards and “fashion” to their followers. Cosmopolis is a brilliant indictment on capitalism and the class divide it has spawned, something all too real in today’s zeitgeist.
*While the Matrix was all literal exposition, eXistenZ actually created the feeling that the Matrix was real, and we were living it.
Cosmopolis is Rated R and runs 108 minutes. It is distributed by Entertainment One who provided a preview screener for the purposes of this review. It opens today, Aug. 24 in my area of South Florida at the following theaters:
Regal South Beach 18 — Miami Beach, FL
AMC Sunset Place 24 — South Miami, FL
Gateway 4 — Fort Lauderdale, FL
Regal Delray Beach 18 — Delray Beach, FL
Regal Shadowood 16 — Boca Raton, FL
Edit: Cosmopolis returns to theaters in South Florida for an exclusive run at the Miami Beach Cinematheque beginning Friday, Oct. 5 at 9 p.m.
(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)