Ladies and gentlemen, we are entering Cronenberg, where supposedly ‘unfilmable’ adaptations – Naked Lunch, Crash (1996), Spider, Dead Ringers – slip audiences into fleshy, gruesome rabbit holes worth exploring all the more for their brooding nature. Over time, the Canadian director has established his own Interzone in graphic human-technology syntheses, and especially not without abetting his “controversial” label. And does his most recent entry deliver.
Cosmopolis, Cronenberg’s movie version of Don DeLillo’s spare 2003 novel, miraculously follows its source material with great fidelity, unlike most of his previous adaptations. But above all, it belongs in Cronenberg’s Interzone, fit with his wonderfully icky cerebral signature.
Of course, that brings baggage. The movie premiered at Cannes Film Festival to mixed results (many critics subsequently took a divided stance as well) and it failed to expand from a limited release in America, earning only a fraction of the box-office returns from A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, two of Cronenberg’s movies released in the last decade. But its biggest struggle stemmed in proving that Robert Pattinson can act.
Originally slated for Colin Farrell, Cronenberg ultimately gave the lead role of multibillionaire Eric Packer to Pattinson, a surprisingly apt choice for Pattinson’s work in – dare I say it – Twilight. In Cosmopolis, Packer travels across New York City in his thronelike, insulated stretch limo for only a haircut. But he’s in for so much more. Over the course of one day, Packer loses his company and personal fortune in the marketplace with threats from an ominous figure hanging in the distance.
But Packer, strangely enough, views this as his ecstatic rebirth – a zomboid given a second chance at the fervor of life (or the shock of a stun gun). Much like his vampire roles, Pattinson resigns himself to transfixing stares and held grimaces, which would seem wooden elsewhere.
But here it works as an oddly nuanced performance. Packer, like the digital fortunes he’s devoted himself to, is abstract matter. As the currencies he sells and buys change, so does he, leaving him ascetic and cold, with more in relation to the the gray chrome in his limo than any of its visitors. Each of his self-satisfied gestures may as well be a cry of despair, and Pattinson works intricately with the dark irony.
Cosmopolis spends most of its time following Packer around NYC in his limo, where it loses most viewers. He’s regularly visited by colleagues and partners of another kind to discuss relationships, faux-philosophy, the future of cyber capital – heady stuff. But Cosmopolis is hardly a self-indulgent lecture. The film and book emphasize turn-of-the-century urgency, where nearly all facets of life have blurred into data. Does Cosmopolis hold its characters’ ramblings about the new millennium with a straight face? Hardly.
Packer and his team try to capitalize but Packer’s downward spiral show even he’s burned out in the transformative era. Like Tyler Durden’s misguided, petulant antics that turned his rebellious and individualistic fight club into another franchise, Packer’s contradictions are part of Cosmopolis‘s larger joke of humans grappling with seismic tumult.
Cronenberg famously labelled all his movies as comedies and Cosmopolis shares his bizarre sense of humor. The movie’s most explicit joke comes from a bemused response to a man lighting himself on fire in protest: “Not original”(the movie’s funniest scene remains off-screen; herds of innocent Twilight fans unaware of the carnage and prostate exams to come).
What exactly is Cosmopolis? Satiric jabs at the effects of late capitalism? A mordant reverie from a smug yet tortured and lost mind? It’s something even I can’t wholly recommend, but would never discourage anyone from seeing. Cosmopolis is a movie that needs to be seen to be believed, admired, reviled – and at least twice to confirm opinions. And those are movies truly worth seeing.