You probably won’t like David Cronenberg’s ‘Cosmopolis’. It’s a hard movie to enjoy. Two people walked out of this screening—and these guys get paid to watch movies. It’s dense, verbose and discusses capitalism through use of obtuse metaphors and, frankly, those are all big barriers if you’re not tuned in, caffeinated and invested (so to speak) in what’s going on. There’s also an inherent ugliness and unpleasantness to lead character, billionaire Eric Packer, offset by the angular and all-too-perfect Robert Pattinson – itself a brilliant bit of casting.
So yeah, you probably won’t like this movie – and I wouldn’t blame you. It’s a bitter pill and it knows it. David Cronenberg (Videodrome, eXistenZ), however, is in fine form here—and if you’re braced for the kind of experience he generally provides (that is, brooding and introspective examinations and taut, sometimes horrific, suspense), Cosmopolis is actually a fine film and utterly fascinating.
The story follows young stock market analyst and billionaire Eric Packer as he cruises through Manhattan in his decadent stretch limousine and mobile office on his way to get a haircut. He crosses paths with his business partners (great bit-part performances from Jay Baruchel, Juliette Binochet and later, Paul Giamatti) and his young wife, Elise (Sarah Gadon) as the city begins to crumble under the weight of a Presidential visit and anti-capitalist protests. What ensues could be best described as a brutal blend of ‘Falling Down’ and something like Richard Linklater’s existential ‘Waking Life’.
As an adaptation of the equally unapproachable novel by Don DeLillo, Cronenberg made a few very wise decisions early on. One, this is Robert Pattinson’s hands-down best role. In the hands of a very capable director and a punishing script, Pattinson turns in a performance that channels a young Robert De Niro, New York twang and all. His performance is so understated and brilliant that, during moments where he breaks through this Wall Street gloss, he comes across as truly unhinged and monstrous. This is a frightening performance in the best ways and points towards a hell of a career ahead for Pattinson.
Choosing to partner with the band Metric to provide the score was also a wise decision. The haunting alt-rock and occasional electronica is almost reminiscent of the approach taken by Trent Reznor for ‘The Social Network’; it’s a tech-soundtrack for a dark business film.
When Cronenberg tackled this film, he also took on a technical challenge: how can you keep the film engaging when a large portion of it plays out inside a limo? One-room scenarios can bring out the best in filmmakers (think: 2010’s ‘Buried’) and Cronenberg plays with the space in impressive ways, nailing unconventional framing and using the vehicle as a brilliant way of showing class divide and Packer’s alienation from the rest of the world in one stroke.
Cosmopolis isn’t a humourless film, however. Amidst the bleak, there’s also levity – usually in the form of obtuse one-liners and a hilariously morbid slapstick attack late in the movie – and these moments are deeply appreciated to help counterbalance the dark core of the narrative.
This narrative needs a certain requisite patience of course – and while I suspect that’s a big ask for many audiences, there’s also the larger problem of pay-off. There’s little resolution as the film’s tale begins to unravel. Things become more and more surreal as Packer begins to disconnect from his job, his city, his life. It builds and builds – but nothing is ever answered. There is no driving purpose here and that’s perhaps the final hurdle audiences will have to overcome. It may simply be too much in the end.
For one of the smartest films I’ve seen in a while, Cosmopolis is also one of the least outwardly enjoyable. That by no means makes it anything less than a great film however. But if you can stomach the loose poetry of the dialogue, heavy use of metaphor and occasionally lax pace, this will leave you thinking about its cultural commentary long after the curtains close.