David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis plays like a cautionary tale for the wealthy, telling the story of a young billionaire so numbed by money and power that it seems physical harm and even the prospect of his own death are his only remaining avenues. This would be Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), a twenty-eight-year-old asset manager for a company in Manhattan. We follow him as he treks across the city with the intention of getting a haircut. He’s driven in a stretch limo that epitomizes the sheer excess of his wealth – a leather-upholstered technological wonderland of television monitors and computer screens, all housed within a layer of cork, added at tremendous difficulty and expense to reduce outside noises, and a polished bulletproof exterior. This is, for lack of a better term, his entire world, hermetically sealed off from the uproar of a Presidential visit, a funeral procession for a Sufi rap star, and a full-swing anti-capitalist riot.
What a fascinating movie this is, so structurally impenetrable and confusing yet so refreshingly uncompromising in its examination of behaviors, personalities, and financial toxicity. It was adapted from the novel by Don DeLillo, which was published in 2003, nearly a decade before the Occupy Movement and several years earlier than the 2008 stock market crash. Cronenberg has turned an eerily prophetic fable into a timely political and social commentary. That it’s cerebral in nature only adds to its interest; we’re introduced to a slew of disaffected characters thriving on or in some way connected to the corrupting influence of money, and at no point can anyone put together a sentence we can understand. The point is not to figure out what they’re trying to say but rather to simply observe them in their perpetual indifference.
Pattinson’s career has been relatively short and highlighted by only a handful of memorable performances. This may finally be the film in which his status as a serious actor is cemented. His take on Packer is nothing if not hypnotic. Here is a man so entrenched in utter apathy that not even losing his money can get a rise out of him. The only time he has any visible emotion is when he learns of the Sufi rapper’s death, and even then, he’s disappointed that natural causes and not an assassination are to blame. He makes several stops as he journeys to his barber and has conversations with a number of people. Most are seen only once, which is to say that they’re played by actors giving cameo appearances. These would include Jay Baruchel, Juliette Binoche, Samantha Morton, and rapper K’Naan, who plays the dead body of the rapper as he’s being transported to his grave in an open coffin. The only two recurring characters are Packer’s wife, Elise (Sarah Gadon), and his bodyguard, Torval (Kevin Durand), who eventually warns him of a credible threat to his safety.
Packer will have two sexual encounters, neither with his wife, who knows their marriage is a sham. One is with Binoche’s character, Didi Fancher, Packer’s personal art consultant; although she makes it clear that the paintings on display in a church are not for sale, Packer is so eager to waste his money that he persists in making offers. The other is with Kendra Hays (Patricia McKenzie), Packer’s second bodyguard. Take note of the fact that, although they physically have sex, Packer is much more interested in Hays’ taser. He even pressures her into shooting him, perhaps in a last-ditch effort to feel something. When he’s back in his limo, he will be examined by his personal physician, just as he’s examined every single day. Quite unexpectedly, it’s discovered that Packer has an asymmetrical prostate.
All will eventually lead to a confrontation with a man named Benno Levin, a former employee at Packer’s company. Holed up in a filthy abandoned apartment building and armed with a serious machinegun, he has come to believe that killing Packer is the only act that will give his life meaning. Levin is played by Paul Giamatti, and although his performance amounts to around ten minutes of screen time, I have a feeling he will be noticed in much the same way William Hurt was noticed in another Cronenberg adaptation, A History of Violence. His processing, his restrained intensity, ensure that you cannot tear your eyes away from the screen. To most people, Levin would seem certifiably insane; in his mind, he’s on a mission so simple and clear that it probably would be a crime not to go through with it. The only element that makes it complicated is Packer, initially passive before becoming disturbingly intrigued.
Of particular note is the film’s dialogue, which Cronenberg has said was taken verbatim from DeLillo’s novel. Listening to the characters talk is a little like eavesdropping on conversations spoken entirely in code, the sentences intentionally structured to make as little sense as possible. This could, perhaps, further symbolize the nothingness that has consumed the characters’ lives; money has poisoned their minds, and so they can only ramble in gibberish. Because there’s no meaning to glean from the dialogue, we instead focus on the fluid-like progression from one word to the next. I’ll be the first to admit that the challenge of processing verbal nonsense wasn’t entirely rewarding, and most audiences are sure to be just as perplexed, if not altogether enraged, by it. But Cosmopolis isn’t about what the characters say; it’s about how they behave given the circumstances they’re in.
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