'Cosmopolis': Cronenberg's Complex, Confounding Masterpiece
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
"Cosmopolis" is almost certainly some kind of masterpiece, but I have to admit it's probably not for everyone. Writer-director David Cronenberg's adaptation of Don DeLillo's 2003 novel is a formally exquisite exercise in tension -- intellectual, emotional, and if you're on the squeamish side, likely physical -- that very deliberately withholds the very sort of release that 99 percent of other motion pictures are engineered to deliver. So it is perhaps fitting that the movie's subject is, ahem, a member of the 1 percent, as they call it: Eric Packer, whom you could have called obscenely rich with impunity back before rich people themselves learned to play the victim card. Young Eric is in need of a haircut, and he wants his stretch limo to take him across town for one. "Cosmopolis" is the story of how he gets half a haircut.
It's also the story of watching the end of the world from inside your clean room of a limo while you're also causing that end. Packer is played by "Twilight" heartthrob Robert Pattinson with an arrogant smirk and a weirdly mutating accent that gets more New Yorkese as his limo nears the Hudson. He is a whiz-kid financial master who can conduct every conceivable transaction -- sexual congress with his art dealer to a full physical with his physician -- from the throne-room-like back seat of his vulgar white stretch. As he passes violent protests, mourns the death of his favorite rap star and petulantly pouts over the concept that there's something out there that's not only not for sale but which "belongs to the world," he tests the limits of his power and his prescience by disastrously betting against a particular currency fluctuation. (And he also makes bizarre conciliatory talk in various quaint diners and bookshops, rest stops along the way, with his oddly dainty but steely new wife, a billionaire heiress herself.)
I've seen people referring to Packer as a character whose rapacious greed has stripped him of his humanity, and, boy, does that miss the point. Capitalism, after all, is a human invention, not a manifestation of "natural law" or any such thing. It is not for nothing that the only time in the movie the word "love" is uttered it's in reference to a unit of currency, and that the person speaking of this love is Packer's nemesis and antithesis. DeLillo's novel was written in 2003 but is set in 2000, and Cronenberg's movie is set in an unspecified now, but it neglects the implied 9/11 resonances of the book in favor of a fantastic emphasis on Occupy Wall Street-type movements/insurrections. However, the point both works are making is that all of this terror is part of the same possibly inescapable ball of wax. There's something far more deeply despairing beneath the droll allegory of how capitalism can't move across a dozen city blocks without leaving a bunch of charred wreckage in its wake.
And, yes, I did say droll. At its heart, "Cosmopolis" is a very mordant comedy. People coming to the picture expecting a kind of realism will be direly disappointed, because even the salt of the earth here, such as they are, don't talk like "real" people. DeLillo's heightened language has the unusual quality of being kind of flat and baroque simultaneously, and this melds well with Cronenberg's verbal style (toward the end we also get overtones from another Cronenberg favorite, William S. Burroughs). It also meshes perfectly with Cronenberg's spare but exacting shooting and cutting style. He examines irrationality with the unflinching precision of a diamond cutter, and the results are as hilarious as they are shocking.
"Cosmopolis" offers no way out from not just the doom that is inevitable for all of us but also for the doom we will ourselves into every day. But what it does is make you look at the world differently when you come out of the theater (and that's what all the best Cronenberg work does). What you do after that is up to you.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.