I am not even going to pretend that I understand everything about Cosmopolis after a single viewing. I must also confess that, despite being a fan of David Foster Wallace, I have read little of Don DeLillo, and the novel David Cronenberg adapts is not among it. And while this is hardly Cronenberg’s weirdest film, it may be among his least accessible. It is, however, a beautiful, bleak, intensely-stylized film, and it’s clear that there is more to it than simple inscrutability.
Eric Michael Packer (Robert Pattinson) wants to get a haircut. This means he must take a crosstown trip from his office to an entirely less savory part of town. His chief of security (Kevin Durand) advises against it; the president is in town, which causes gridlock under the best of circumstances. But there is word of unrest in the streets — protesters have taken there rallying cry from Zbigniew Herbert’s poem: “a rat became the unit of currency”. The mood is not good in this besieged city for young-turk captains of finance.
Packer has one thing in his favor, though: his limousine. From the outside it looks like any of the other white stretch limos that prowl the streets of New York City; on the inside it’s sleek, luxurious, and futuristic. He may as well be in his office, with coolly glowing screens piping in whatever information he needs to his rolling throne room, and with windows whose tint adjusts in a whisper to let in or block out the city outside.
As the car makes its slow trek across Manhattan, Packer can hold court with a sequence of interlocutors. He discusses the Yuan with one of his traders (Philip Nozuka); a Rothko with a consultant and lover (Juliette Binoche); socioeconomic theory with one of his chief advisors (Samantha Morton). He takes his daily medical exam. His straight path intersects the more convoluted one taken by his distant wife (Sarah Gadon) three separate times.
The obvious question is how Pattinson acquits himself; his lackluster appearance in Bel Ami was at least partly the fault of being cast as a no-talent hack who rises to prominence by looking like, well, Robert Pattinson. And while his performance here is no standout, he has clearly mastered the single most important point: shut up and do exactly as David Cronenberg says. Every character we see is stylized and unnatural and just what Cronenberg needs them to be; Pattinson is the slowly disintegrating blank at the center of it all.
And Cronenberg is just as comfortably in control of the camera as he is of his cast; his shots are as stylized as his characters. He composes his dialogue in alternating shots of each character, but proportions, angles, and eye-lines never quite match up; Packer is disconnected from everything around him, freely falling away from a society with which he has long since cut any meaningful ties.
Pattinson, by his presence, is going to pull in a big crowd that is not remotely prepared for a Cronenberg film, and a lot of that crowd are going to walk away bewildered. But if Cosmopolis does nothing but spark a desire in some small fraction of them to seek out stories with this much more substance than Twilight it will have been worthwhile.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.