There were those that worried David Cronenberg’s last film, A Dangerous Method, was if anything, not dangerous at all. The director, with his infamous reputation as the king of horror and the macabre, came out a four-year hiatus not with a bang, but more with a whimper. This move was particularly disappointing considering his strong displays the few previous years which included A History of Violence, and Eastern Promises. As if in penance for playing it too safe, Cronenberg’s latest film is anything but that. It’s dark, it’s funny in a terribly off-centered way, it’s confusing, and dense. But there’s something there, just below the surface. It’s difficult to put your finger on, but you’ll feel its presence too, if you have a surplus of patience.
With Cosmopolis, Cronenberg continues his interest in adapting books many consider unadaptable due to their abstract or absurd natures. Spider was a story that takes place inside of a man’s head. Naked Lunch is far too weird, too indescribable to try and conceptualize on a set, and J.G. Ballard’s Crash was far too erotic, far too willing to associate violence and sex for a movie. It’s no wonder he took an interest in the novel by Don DeLillo, a novelist whose books are often optioned, but rarely made for this same reason. Cronenberg did indeed have his work cut out for him, the majority of this film takes place inside a limo.
Who is inside this limo? Eric Packer, a 28-year-old billionaire who’s inching his way across New York City to get a haircut on the other side of town. In a city where the average speed of automobiles is already seven miles per hour, Mr. Packer (played by Robert Pattinson) must be traveling at half that. The United States President is in town and his presidential motorcade is slowing down things in the city dramatically. This limo, which serves Mr. Packer as an office, a media center, a doctor’s office, and a boardroom, is lined with cork to shut out the outside world, including its ambient noises. Mr. Packer receives a parade of experts and analysts that speak to him in dialogue that is more poetic than it is literal or even sensical, it’s flowery but with a sense of gravitas. But at the end of each conversation, you’re not sure whether the speakers are geniuses, or good at saying a lot of things without really saying anything. Adding to the drama is the disclosure by Mr. Packer’s head of security that there is a very clear and present danger, an individual determined to make an attack on the billionaire’s life. Details, however, are few and vague.
Some of these visitors serve as the film’s best moments. Juliette Binoche’s character is Mr. Packer’s art dealer and casual sexual partner. Her frank attitude toward’s Packer’s lifestyle (not contempt mind you) and her confident embracing of her age (forty one) make her visit one of the more memorable. Samantha Morton as his Chief of Theory (presented by the film as if this is a real thing) has one of the more convoluted monologue, not to mention she speaks in rhymes about class struggles and protests against the future, as a very real and dangerous protest outside literally rocks the limousine. They can’t be bothered to cast even a casual glance out to see what the fuss is about. The decision to remain faithful to the source material, to keep much of the action inside the limo was a positive one, and reinforces much of the film’s atmosphere. Cronenberg openly discussed studying similarly set films like Das Boot, and Lebanon, and claims that claustrophobia very much is the point in Cosmopolis.
The riots, clearly inspired by financial and social inequality, take place in this book that was published in 2003. This is just one of the reasons DeLillo is sometimes claimed to be prophetic, much like Cronenberg is himself. These riots seem to mirror the much more peaceful, yet nonetheless fervent Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. Cronenberg has assured us that neither he, nor DeLillo has any interest in the role of a prophet.
It becomes clear as the limo inches on that Mr. Packer has lost the vast majority of his wealth this very same day, betting against the Chinese yuan. Yet he remains detached, curiously unemotional. The fact he chooses to spend this, of all days, going to have his hair cut seems to indicate denial, or some other psychosomatic defense mechanism, but considered in a broader context, he just seems to not really care. In a brief scene where he beds one of his personal security guards, he asks her to Tase him, insisting, he’s “looking for more.”
Mr. Packer’s dramatic day gets weirder as he, and the occasionally gleaming city of New York descends into the dark of the night and madness. This journey almost seems Kafkaesque, and I was more than once reminded of Michael Haneke’s film adaptation of Kafka’s The Castle (Das Schloß). This doesn’t stop Cosmopolis from its climactic conclusion which is best left to be discovered while watching the film, if you make it that far.