In the very near future of the cinematic present, a young billionaire named Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) decides one morning that he’s going to climb into his limousine and head across Manhattan to go to the barber he insists on visiting. The city is mobbed, however, by traffic jams from the visiting President and a celebrity funeral, and the limo crawls slowly through the city over the course of a day as Packer pulls various employees and business partners into his isolated oasis as he inches his way across an increasingly desolate city in the face of a global economic crisis that mirrors his own deteriorating mindset.
That is actually as succinct a summary of David Cronenberg’s newest film, Cosmopolis, as you could ever hope to ask for. Based on a novel by the same name by Don DeLillo, Cronenberg once again delves into the inner psyche of a troubled character in a challenging drama that manages on the surface to appear intimate and small, but reveals that underneath it all lie deep waters. Like his recent masterpieces, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, Cosmopolis is as mature and considered a drama as one could ask for. That, however, is where the similarities end, and where this review strikes out from the concrete into the strange territory of this nightmare road trip.
From the beginning, the movie takes a bold strike out of Cronenberg’s modern naturalistic style and into the realm of literary adaptation that borders on surreal. Characters spit lines like they’re reciting poetry, the rhythms a mixture of the cadence of Beat Poetry and T S Eliot, talking agenda and metaphor at each other as they hurtle through the gleaming city in a womb of modernity. The limousine, cold and modern and filled wall to wall with computer screens and data, is the decadence of instant access and no-boundaries internet life, a place where Packer retreats to run his operation like an emperor in exile, pulling people out of the heat and chaos of the city to hold audiences where he questions their jobs, their lives, their deepest secrets and desires.
In fact, the entire film plays out in this metaphor mode, with each person more than the actor embodies. Teenage technowizards attached to screens of data but oblivious to the world come in, communicating around a faceful of tablet. Security teams, working to access various threats on Packer and the President, hover around the slow car like flies. The security theater is deep and ever-present, a constant stream of potential threats pulled from anonymous sources whispered into ears, data without a filter that turns every unplanned occurance into a crisis. A doctor, who comes daily, offers Packer a constant up-to-the-minute play by play of all the various health concerns of the world’s most powerful man, who has a deep abiding fear that the minute he stops wallowing in health care in the minute death will come to claim him.
And then there’s the women. A parade of women, from employees he harasses and makes uncomfortable, to mistresses he screws and discards in the middle of meetings and business transactions. And his wife, a carefully coiffed princess of a woman who is every ideal of a successful man’s trophy wife: erudite, elegant, and frigid. She’s the socially acceptable type of bohemian, an upscale poet from old money. Packer is infatuated with the idea of her, of turning her into another one of his whores, and constantly tries to talk her into debasing herself. That’s the gender game he plays: every woman is a conquest, every desire for sex another problem he tackles with money and analytics and a keep business sense of human psychology. There is a savagery to the sexual politics of the movie that makes even the uncomfortable dynamics of something like A History of Violence feel like chaste courtship. Here, even casual consensual sex seems to border on rape, with the always implicit threat of violence not from brutality, but from sheer boredom.
And it’s that boredom that threatens to overwhelm Packer: he’s a man who has everything, and thus every movement and every decision is a gesture of that power. He intends to run the world, and everyone assumes he does, even as the reality slowly dawns on him that he ultimately cannot control anything. As he glides through the city, he watches the whole structure of society outside start to come down around him, and for all his always-on technology and pricey data mining, there is a fundamental void. There’s infinite knowledge and zero understanding, only a brute force method of manipulation and dominance that has brought him so high and left him ready to tumble so far if he can’t make the leap to adapt to a system he created, which now moves so fast that it outpaces all human effort.
That gap of knowledge brings him up short, and for someone who has based his entire identity on solving problems and exploiting profit, it makes him crack. By the time he finally makes it to the barber’s chair after a long day of disillusionment, he sits and listens to the world’s worst barber give a speech about what life was like when he was a young cabbie in New York. It is undoubtedly the best moment in the film, as Packer listens to someone cling to an identity that has already past him by, an old man feebly still believing in a narrative that is as false as the one Packer has based his life on. Seeing him realize that his problems are not the problems of modernity, but the basic human problems—the fundamental existential problems from the dawn of civilization—comes along with watching him finally crack fully under the strain of this shattered reality.
It’s that moment that kicks off the last leg of the film, which veers deep into destruction and desolation so resolute that I won’t begin to try to enumerate its facets here. But it is terrifying, not only for how real and of-the-moment it feels but in how much Pattinson invests in the role. This is the kind of role that demands a range that only a great actor working with a great director can pull off, and every eye rolling critic of Pattinson’s more famous works is going to have to reassess after this as his fanbase recoils in horror to see their icon throw himself into the deep end of the most negative human experiences. Here is someone, frequently dismissed, giving what I feel is easily the best performance of the year.
As for the film that surrounds it? Cosmopolis is not an easy film to love, or even an easy film to watch. It is dense and unapproachable, it tackles subjects of greed and corporate culture and the void at the dark heart of the human condition with a zeal that is frightening. It’s offputting, deliberately so, and it has almost none of the charm of a movie like American Psycho that puts similar cultural critique in a period box for us to play with safely from a distance. Here the guns are out, and the safeties off, and someone is going to end up getting seriously hurt. The movie doesn’t blind from tackling the realities of right now, in 2012, of the problems and beliefs that are tearing people and economies and nations apart.
If anything, it’s simply too much. The movie is so wide-reaching in its attempt to grasp the moment of the zeitgeist that it ends up with too many things to say, which leads to this distance as the movie veers from subject to subject at the speed of global thought, of money markets and internet searches. But in that constant din of information comes the deep truths: the reality of humanity has not changed, and will never change, and there is something ultimately deeply terrible about seeing the gleaming utopia of the capitalist ideal and recognizing in it the dead end animal fact of the basest of human life.
Does that mean that Cosmopolis is good? I can’t answer that objectively. I think it’s an important, brave movie. I think we will see many people attempt similar projects with more focus as we learn to articulate these ideals better. But I think that Cronenberg has married his early sense of profound wrongness and his more mature understanding of human nature into the kind of movie that synthesizes a monster, a fevered nightmare that’s scary not because it feels so foreign, but that because the cavalcade of weirdness seems all too much like the world we know and face every day, even more unequipped than this avatar of privilege, that is ready to devour all of us alive.
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