Are you a David Cronenberg fan? I hope so. If you aren’t, I think you should consider it. His 2012 entry Cosmopolis came and went in a super-limited release, and hardly made any noise in the process.
It only took me about ten minutes after hitting “play” to realize why Cosmopolis never struck a nerve. The viewer is thrown in the deep end, submerged in a world of bizarre (but subdued) images, oddball dialogue, and bone-dry characters. In some ways, it’s one of Cronenberg’s least accessible movies to date.
Also, it’s excellent. Hear me out…
Quick bit of context: Cosmopolis is based on a Don Delillo novel published in 2003. In adapting the book, Cronenberg copied all the dialogue verbatim, removed the internal monologuing, and found visual ways to fill in the holes. The process apparently took about six days and resulted in a wholly faithful rendition of the book’s tone, rhythm, and vocabulary.
The plot is really just there to hang a bunch of interesting scenes on, but essentially it’s about a young billionaire named Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) who makes a cross-city journey in a limo to get a haircut. Along the way, he encounters a riot, a funeral, several women, and a host of other distractions, all the while hemorrhaging money because of a fiscal bet gone wrong.
Let’s get this out of the way — Pattinson’s got some serious acting chops. As Eric Packer, he anchors every single scene of Cosmopolis, chewing through a script full of offbeat, hyper-stylized dialogue that often feels almost completely random. Yet he holds his own throughout, even in a twenty-minute climax with Paul Giamatti. Twilight should be officially behind this guy now.
The supporting cast performs admirably, too. Most of the actors show up for one key scene, then rotate out to let the next character through. As such, nobody really up and steals the show, though a couple of people make themselves particularly noticeable. For me, it was the aforementioned Paul Giamatti as Benno Levin, a character whose interaction with Packer at the end of the movie is an appropriate high to end the movie with. Sarah Gadon also impresses as Packer’s disconnected new wife. You’ll see other familiar faces along the way.
Don’t spend too much time looking for actors, though. Cosmopolis is one of those movies that demands inspection, dissection, and perhaps a straight-up second viewing. Delillo’s dialogue comes thick and fast, with characters usually talking around and at each other instead of having real conversations.
Cronenberg grounds the movie admirably, bringing his typical low-key tone and control of his actors to the forefront. For the first thirty minutes, it seems like the movie’s hardly going anywhere. If you stick with it, though, you’ll eventually follow it to a very pointed, if not particularly typical, conclusion.
Tip: Cronenberg suggests not listening to every word of the dialogue, but rather just listening to it the way you listen to music. Also, as with all Cronenberg movies, it helps to keep in the back of your mind that he thinks his material is pretty funny most of the time. No, I’m serious.
Anyway, though it’s not nearly as gruesome or kinky as a lot of Cronenberg’s past projects, Cosmopolis nevertheless fits snugly into his filmography. It deals loss and self-destruction; Pattinson is in many ways his own worst enemy. In the old days, Cronenberg would use a lot more prosthetics and blood to make the point, but those elements are kept to a relative minimum here.
So, if it’s missing all the grotesque imagery, what does it have instead? Well, the obvious thing to mention is the sense of isolation found inside the limousine. I don’t know exactly how much of the screentime occurs inside Packer’s luxury vehicle, but I’d suspect it’s more than half. By the end, the limo becomes its own character. It shields Packer from the outside world almost completely. The cries of angry rioters soften to a whisper; their graffiti and vandalism only make it harder for Packer to see them.
In place of meaningful human contact, Packer has digital readouts and monitors that show him the outside world. Drink in hand, he’s able to keep track of a celebrity funeral, plummeting stocks, and anything else — what little there is — that he deems important.
The ad campaign for Cosmopolis claimed it as “the first film about the new millennium.” While I think that’s a little bold — The Social Network certainly has a shot at the title — it does get at the core of what Cronenberg and Delillo are doing. It’s increasingly difficult to remember that Delillo’s novel was written a decade ago, as the movie feels insanely topical. File this one under “prophetic.”
So, if you’re a fan of the man behind the camera, Cosmopolis is almost required viewing — particularly if you go for his more difficult stuff like Spider or Naked Lunch. For everybody else, you’ll have to use your own discretion. It’s certainly not light viewing, but it’s rewarding and a hypnotic viewing experience if you let it get to you. I’m not usually an experimental film guy, but when someone as capable as David Cronenberg’s at the wheel, I’m up for anything.
This movie is the kind of thing that’s almost impossible to put a rating on, but…
4.5 out of 5 stars, I guess.