There is a moment in David Cronenberg’s latest film Cosmopolis where actor Robert Pattinson, playing protagonist Eric Packer, sits slumped in the back seat of a limo, expressionless and fatigued, the fingers of his left hand typing data into a state-of-the-art screen on his armrest, the fingers of his right hand picking peanuts out of a crystal bowl. Packer’s tired eyes stare listlessly forward, paying no attention to the information scrolling on his screen, or to what he is typing, as if it couldn’t possibly matter. Within the sleek soft glow of his surroundings, Packer appears as elegant and attractive as he does completely exhausted, and ultimately, increasingly disinterested. Admittedly, this reviewer found himself remarking how perfectly the image captured the mood and theme of the film – but also unfortunately, the experience of watching it.
Recent critically-acclaimed thrillers A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007) seemed to arrive as a proclamation that the acclaimed director, dubbed both the “Baron of Blood” and the “King of Venereal Horror” by critics, was moving in a new creative direction. Although each film carried flashes of shocking violence, urgent sex, and characteristically inventive gore, the films were far from the exploding heads of Scanners (1981) and nightmarish sexual imagery of Rabid (1977) and eXistenZ (1999). Even Cronenberg’s 2011 effort A Dangerous Method, despite having Sigmund Freud as a protagonist and dealing with themes of sexuality and sadomasochism, was surprisingly tame from the man who gave us Debbie Harry and that cigarette in Videodrome (1983), and the frank and often extreme sexuality in back-to-back films Naked Lunch (1991), M. Butterfly (1993), and Crash (1996). Although the quality of Cronenberg’s works has not diminished – many critics have suggested that his work has improved, often expressing that the director has “matured” with his recent contributions – seasoned fans have wondered if they would ever again see the hyper-stylized, surreal, and ultimately head-scratching worlds of Cronenberg’s famously twisted imagination. The announcement then that Cronenberg would adapt celebrated author Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel Cosmopolis has had genre fans salivating; moreover, the pairing seemed an overdue match made in Heaven. DeLillo’s postmodern works are as dark, masterful, and profound as they are staggering in theme, and often challenging in scope and structure. Who better to take DeLillo on than the man who dared adapt William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch – and actually pulled it off?
From its opening sequence, the film Cosmopolis seems to announce a return-to-style for Cronenberg. Recalling the automobile-as-fetish of Crash, the film – like the source novel – takes place almost entirely within Packer’s limousine, a veritable command center on wheels featuring extensive technology, an impenetrable bullet-proof shell, and enough room for sex, prostate exams, and more than a few impromptu philosophical conversations about politics, the economy, life and death, and rats. Recalling eXistenZ and Naked Lunch, the dialogue is delivered in an extremely stylized fashion, with characters expounding on seemingly apocalyptic matters with all the enthusiasm of a dissertation. Plot? Simple: billionaire 28-year-old Eric Packer is making his way across town in search of a haircut, as the world – both within and outside him – falls apart. Like so many of Cronenberg’s greatest works, much of the film’s greatest moments come in the form of ancillary characters, who come in and out of Packer’s life – and limo – in various levels of duress, neurosis, and eccentricity; the problem is, they stick around just long enough to make some small impact to the proceedings, but not enough to truly have made a mark. And one can argue that this is the point – that it’s in keeping with Packer’s feeling of isolation and increasing misanthropy that the people around him are essentially characters with very little to offer but their opinions – but with such actors as Juliette Binoche, Samantha Morton, and the great Mathieu Almaric dropping in, their all-too-brief stays in the film, paired by the fact that most of the film otherwise involves watching Packer sit in his car, leave much to be desired.
Credit Cronenberg, however, with the fact that every actor in this film seems completely game for complementing the style of the film with their performances. As Packer, Pattinson deftly carries the alternating command, allure, dissatisfaction, menace, disgust, and resignation of his character, essentially going through the motions of a dissociated life while maintaining a sense of self-aware cool. As Packer’s wife Elise, actress Sarah Gadon delivers her dialogue as if she is minutes from a fatal Quaalude overdose, but with a knowing sense of control, particularly over a character who everyone else in the film seems to revere as a cosmopolitan god. And finally, enter the reliable Paul Giamatti in the film’s final act, delivering what is easily the finest performance in the film (though in fairness, he is given the most to work with). As Benno Levin, a mysterious figure with an intense existential grudge, Giamatti’s completely unstylized and unrestrained portrayal of a man at great odds with the world around him is jarring in its intensity, a ferocious antithesis to the monotone discourse that has come before. In a film peppered with postmodern cyberpunk psychobabble, Levin’s rage, pain, and nihilism emerge as the only palpable emotions to be found in the film – no doubt Cronenberg’s intent, and well achieved.
If only the journey to this moment hadn’t been a drudging, wearisome, emotionally sterile voyage through a string of seemingly unrelated threads of theory-as-intellectualism conversation, this may have been a great film. The craft is there, the performers are great, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else taking on this material than Cronenberg, but unfortunately there is simply very little that is compelling about the central character. Moreover – much like the gloss and gadgetry of Packer’s limo – the many conversations throughout the film may sound like intellectual, mind-bending, big heady stuff, but ultimately much of it sounds like the laughable drivel found on any number of William Gibson-inspired conspiracy websites; or, for that matter, in a lesser DeLillo work. Still, it’s great to have the master back at play, exploring the interior and the exterior with style, precision, and a flare for absurdity and surrealism – welcome back to Interzone, Mr. Cronenberg.