Film Review: CosmopolisDavid Cronenberg’s deadpan take on the Don DeLillo novel about a rapacious Master of the Universe gliding in his soundproof limo through the rioting streets of New York is a serenely crazed view of the present. The master is back.
After a few years working in genres like the gangster film (Eastern Promises) and the art-house period piece (A Dangerous Method) threatened to turn him into a respectable filmmaker, David Cronenberg thankfully returns to the perverse, literary artistry of more contentious works like Crash with this abstract, pitch-black comedy. For all its artificial mannerisms, though, Cosmopolis isn’t one of the director’s more abstruse and off-putting constructions; this is a sleek, seductive construction. The concoction of high-end theorizing on the state of the world, finance and the social sphere mixed with deadpan satire, in addition to the expected jabs of rough sex and ultra-violence, is a highly effective one for audiences willing to go along (ahem) for the ride.
Adapted by Cronenberg from Don DeLillo’s prescient 2003 novel, Cosmopolis is set in a fantastical New York of the present or near-future, a nebulous universe that feels like a recent William Gibson novel—this might be the future, but it’s barely five minutes hence. Robert Pattinson plays Eric Packer, a 28-year-old wizard of some species of speculative, quantitative finance who has made his billions and now can’t seem to wait to set his entire universe on fire. He drifts through the city in a white limo that looks outside like all the others, but inside is a fully wired and soundproof command center that keeps him wired to his empire while sitting in traffic on the way to get a haircut.
A Patrick Bateman type whose bubble of money saves him from having to hide his incipient psychosis, Packer refers to himself in the third person (“We don’t care, we need a haircut”) and dismisses the concerns of his menacing bodyguard/driver (Kevin Durand) about threats on his life with the equanimity of somebody readying himself for self-immolation. Meanwhile, anti-capitalist protestors riot and spray-paint the limo, hurling dead rats and announcing, “There is a specter haunting the world. The specter of capitalism.” The specter is Packer, who opines on “the interaction of capital and society” as though human affairs were some foreign concept.
As the limo drifts along in cloistered quiet, Packer entertains a series of visitors for verbal and theoretical jousting. In most hands, these dense downloads of information would bring the film to a halt. But the plot is little more than stasis with a rumbling undercurrent of impending chaos, so there is little to slow down. Also, the performers—ranging from woozy theorist Samantha Morton to feline prostitute Juliette Binoche (who, in a nice tweak on lifestyles of the one-percent, goes from servicing Packer sexually to offering him a line on a Rothko painting)—are for the most part spectacular. Occasionally, Packer hops out to exchange words with a cool blonde (Sarah Gadon) who turns out to be his wife and isn’t happy with how much he “reeks of sexual discharge.”
Pattinson plays Packer as a wearied savage, a rapacious predator who both wants everything and can’t wait to tear it down. He’s the embodiment of a kind of modern capitalism, surfing the waves of invisible money in his cocoon of invulnerability. Terrified of mortality like so many of the ultra-rich, he brings a doctor to his limo for a checkup each day (which sets up one of the film’s better and more grotesque jokes).
The conceit is a starched and literary one, with the stitched-together soliloquies, Packer’s Godot-like journey to the haircut that’s of course not just a haircut, and also his pride over having “Prousted” his limo. (He had it lined with cork, just under the armor, for soundproofing; Proust did the same to quiet his writing study, though the film leaves that part unexplained.) The claustrophobia of it all actually works to Cronenberg’s advantage, highlighting the knife-like performances and emphasizing the surprisingly effective notes of deadpan comedy. Cosmpolis loses some of its energy later when the action departs more from the tightened actors’ studio of the limo. But Cronenberg still maintains his tone of ironic prophecy, showing a world being spun towards chaos by a furiously accelerating present.