The first David Cronenberg film I ever saw was his (pretty good) adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone, starring Christopher Walken, Tom Skerritt and Martin Sheen, which appeared on British TV late one night at the end of the 1980s. Following this, delving into Cronenberg’s back catalogue was a richly rewarding experience, with venereal sci-fi / horror movies like Scanners, The Fly and Videodrome containing an almost narcotic, addictive pleasure; an avowed teenage schlock fiend, I lapped them all up. He remains a director that I follow closely today, which I guess is partly due to the fact that my own tastes have evolved and partly because he has changed as a filmmaker.
Cronenberg has always been primarily concerned with the psychological and the physical, but he has been exploring these themes through a variety of different genres for around two decades now, leaving sci-fi and body horror alone since 1999’s mis-marketed (and underrated) eXistenZ. In recent years the Canadian director has particularly excelled in the crime thriller genre, making the excellent Eastern Promises and A History Of Violence. His films may not always be perfect but they are as interesting and unusual today as they were when he first burst onto the scene in the 1970s; there are not too many directors you can say that about.
The latest, Cosmopolis, is an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 2003 novella, and the screenplay is Cronenberg’s first writing credit since eXistenZ. The story is a ‘day in the life’ of Eric Packer, a 28-year old billionaire asset manager played with icy conviction by Robert Pattinson, who travels across New York City inside a state-of-the-art limousine, hermetically sealed off from the outside world. (I haven’t seen any of the Twilight films, but this is a decent, assured performance which indicates his career may have longevity once the teen heartthrob stage passes. It’s no surprise that Cronenberg has signed him up again for his forthcoming satire Maps To The Stars.) Packer meets with various employees inside the car throughout the day as he slowly crosses the city in order to visit a barber shop he remembers from his youth, including art consultant Didi (Juliette Binoche), bodyguard and lover Kendra (Patricia McKenzie), head of finance Jane (Emily Hampshire), theorist Vija (Samantha Morton), his doctor (Bob Bainborough), and a couple of systems and security analysts. Their arrivals and departures are never documented, and often completely illogical (particularly when you consider the difficulty Eric has in getting from one side of the city to the other). Throughout, these conversations tend to be high-level and conducted at a pace which makes them tricky to follow; additionally some take on a surreal edge, oddly formed of back-and-forth statements of fact rather than the usual conversational mix of questions, pauses, answers, repetition, repetition and repetition. The dialogue of Cosmopolis was clearly written originally to be read, rather than spoken, but Cronenberg uses it to his advantage to create a cold, weird mood.
The journey to the barber shop takes all day because of crosstown traffic caused by three separate incidents: a visit by the President, an Occupy Wall Street-style downtown protest and the funeral cortege of a well-known rapper who has just died unexpectedly. Eric’s limousine is fitted with hi-tech security systems, though, and the billionaire is also protected by bodyguards, including the loyal Torval (Kevin Durand), who warns Eric of a credible threat to his life.
When stepping outside of his vehicle, Eric appears to lose a large amount of his control, and the people he talks to away from the car generally end up causing him grief in one way or another. His old money wife, Elise (Sarah Gadon), meets him three times and rejects his repeated requests for sex. A comedy protester known as The Pastry Assassin (Mathieu Amalric) attacks him in the street with a custard pie, and he is also targeted by a disgruntled former employee named Benno Levin (Paul Giamatti). Yet as the day progresses Eric is drawn more and more to the chaos of the outside world, and begins to spend time away from the car, as well as removing the usual human protection that surrounds him.
An ultra-rich financier, the bored and distant Eric is impossible to warm to, but he is an extremely fascinating character. Strangely, he displays very little emotion except for two scenes: one where he learns of a rapper’s death and another where he receives a custard pie in the face. He seems unconcerned by the possible consequences of his actions and he cares little about the wealth he has amassed; when a dip in the Chinese Yuan wipes out much of his fortune it barely registers … much of this capital, presumably, isn’t actually tangible. Instead he is obsessed by the things he cannot buy with his money: his wife denies him access to her body, and when Didi tells him of a Rothko painting he can purchase he is disgruntled, and declares his unrealistic desire to purchase the Rothko Chapel instead, which houses 14 of the artist’s works.
As such it’s difficult to read Cosmopolis as anything other than a study of extreme personal greed within the system of capitalism. Packer is the kind of businessman who has already been through the stage of wanting more and more and more money, and his subsequent thirst for things that are hard or impossible to attain will never be sated. He is arguably the true heir to the Wall Street throne of Gordon Gecko, an oily, less-realistic but more current 2.0 model than, say, Jordan Belfort. Eric only seems to be happy when he is in danger, and thus is ironically trapped within the system that made him, with all its attendant security and safety protocols; the limousine acts as an obvious metaphor for this imprisonment. DeLillo’s novel predicted the recent financial crash back in 2003, but Cronenberg’s zeitgeisty timing in incorporating Occupy-style protestors into the film version could not have been better.
Being a film by David Cronenberg, it isn’t a straightforward political statement and parts of the movie feel like a disturbing dream, which actually diverts attention away helpfully from the fact that there isn’t all that much meat here. The limousine crawls through the streets due to protests and traffic jams, and no exterior noise makes it into the car, which creates an unusual atmosphere at all times. There are odd scenes within the limo, particularly one in which Packer’s doctor performs a daily check of the patient’s prostate while he continues an existing conversation with Jane (not quite as throwaway as it first seems, with Levin arguing in the bizarre final scene that Packer’s asymmetrical prostate was actually a financial tip-off that was missed), and another involving the robotic Vija, whose reaction to the protests outside is as weirdly calm as Packer’s. Outside of the limo the constant presence and earpiece-chatter of Packer’s suit-clad security spooks recalls The Matrix, bizarrely. As Packer chats with the equally emotionless Elise it becomes apparent that they barely know each other, which adds to the film’s odd flavour.
Pattinson helps to set the tone through his performance, such is Packer’s centrality to the story. Free from the pressures of being adored by a Cullen-loving teenage audience, he seems to relish the chance to play a disgruntled and dangerous little shit with no redeeming qualities at all; you have to wonder what all the Twilight fans made of this abrupt career left turn, even if he is essentially playing a different kind of vampire. He shares a long, intense scene at the end of the film with would-be killer Giamatti, now a go-to actor for memorable supporting roles, and some excellent moments with Gadon, but the scenes with Binoche and Morton fall a little flat, sadly. Most of the supporting actors in the film are given two or three minutes on screen and then do not return.
No sane person could possibly love this film, and it’s a surprise that it featured highly on Sight And Sound’s 2012 year-end poll, but that’s not to say there isn’t much to admire or take from Cosmopolis. Cronenberg deserves credit for keeping the vast number of limo-based scenes fresh with a variety of camera angles, and as such it never feels too cramped in the car, but ultimately the film is reliant on its dialogue, which is unfortunately delivered too quickly and is often impenetrable. This isn’t the easiest of Cronenberg’s films to warm to, and the deeply loathsome lead character is probably the main cause of that, but it is a novel take on the oft-seen one man meltdown, and certainly the product of a real creative talent.
Directed by: David Cronenberg
Written by: Don DeLillo, David Cronenberg
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Gadon, Kevin Durand
Running Time: 108 minutes