Film Review: "COSMOPOLIS"
Published: Friday, August 24, 2012
Updated: Friday, August 24, 2012 08:08
Without a doubt one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers, David Cronenberg has made a career on movies that sometimes feel like they are deliberately punishing the audience. He’s done it in a myriad of ways: I’m thinking of the grotesque special effects of “THE FLY”, the unparalleled creepiness of “DEAD RINGERS”, or the unrestrained violence and gore of “EASTERN PROMISES” (I love all these films, for whatever it’s worth.) But his latest work, “COSMOPOLIS”, an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel, is punishing in a way that some of his other best films (notably, also adaptations,) like “NAKED LUNCH”, or “CRASH”, achieved. It’s psychological punishment.
Robert Pattinson stars as dry, disaffected financial trader billionaire Eric Packer; awash for the course of the running time in talk of topics as disparate as cybercapital (with his advisors,) assassination attempts (with his security team,) and when he’ll next be making love to his wife (with, well, his wife.) Today, he goes to get a haircut, taking his limo – complete with an interactive, business-ready throne – across blocks of gridlocked New York traffic, stopped by a President’s visit, a famous rapper’s assassination, and unrepentant pie-throwing, among other such interruptions. On paper, it appears a straightforward fable, but through Cronenberg’s direction, it becomes an almost-experimental sensory experience, paranoia and dread hanging over every frame like the “credible threats” so consistently levied against Pattinson’s character.
The insanely dry satire (which is constantly amusing but only intermittently uproarious – put that on your poster,) will only be apparent to those with the darkest of humors; the rest will likely be lost reading the film as the least thrilling thriller ever made. And while Pattinson may not step into Viggo Mortenson’s role as Cronenberg’s apparent muse, he nails the deadpan satirical tone the film is going for, and that’s all we need out of him (the way his Brooklyn accent fluctuates in and out as he gets excited is a damn fine touch, too.)
But behind the stone-faces and the apparent structural impenetrability is an indescribable cinematic experience, at once startlingly contemporary and emotionally timeless, about man’s own instinct to drive himself into the ground (it’s also about a whole hell of a lot of other things, but I’ll need one or four more viewings to get to the bottom of it all.) When thrown together with Cronenberg’s usual mass of sly social commentary - one of the few changes from the book is altering the currency that’s destroying Packer from the Japanese yen to the Chinese yuan, and you can bet that isn’t coincidental - and visual symbolism (did I mention the limo has a throne?) the film doesn’t just feel like it would be aided by a second viewing, it seems to demand one. It’s a puzzle smashed into innumerable pieces, and you’ve no hope at putting them together before the end of your first run through its 108-minute runtime.
And the plot? What plot? Cronenberg takes the simple set-up and turns it into an almost-non-narrative exercise in surrealism, philosophy, and surrealist philosophy. The film rarely leaves the limo, hilariously artificial images of protesters sneak through the tinted windows, but the world outside is silent to us. When Packer talks to one of the supporting cast for their one allotted scene each – Juliette Binoche, Samantha Morton, Jay Barachel, and Paul Giamatti are among the more notable inclusions – the editing excises both the entrances and exits of the scenes. You find yourself wondering how you got from one place to the next; Cronenberg contributing further to the dreamlike trance the detached dialogue had already created.
His purposefully flat digital photography renders our cyber-traders as one-dimensional beings devoid of even literal depth, intensifying how inherently ugly all their seductive technology and cyber-economics really is to Cronenberg. It’s hard to tell immediately under all the collected attitudes and calm camera movements, but this is an angry film. They say Lewis Carroll wrote “Alice in Wonderland” as a response to the introduction of imaginary numbers to mathematics, something he saw as a perversion of logic itself. DeLillo and Cronenberg bring us down their own rabbit hole here, studying a world where imaginary money dominates the economy. They seem to be asking, how can a society sustain itself with so much debt, with so much nonexistent capital floating around? As one character constantly puts it, “these are things I do not know.”