Like all of his previous works, David Cronenberg’s latest film Cosmopolis explores some of the most profound aspects of the human condition. It’s an intense psychosexual thriller from the postmodern novel of the same name by Don DeLillo, with themes ranging from mortality to the dehumanising effects of capitalism. We follow Wall Street tycoon Eric Packer and his chauffeur-driven limousine as he rides across town to get a haircut at his father’s old barber. During the course of his journey, the world outside descends into financial and civil chaos triggering the personal and professional disintegration of Packer, played assuredly by Twilight star Robert Pattinson.
With prolonged scenes of dialogue about economics enunciated in a mannered style akin to characters in Beckett and Pinter, Cosmopolis is one of the more unusual critiques of capitalism. The billionaire protagonist retains only shreds of his humanity among a closed off world where money, as Cronenberg puts it, ‘is talking to itself’. Obviously the film taps into the zeitgeist of the global economic crisis, but Cronenberg didn’t at first realise how much his film was prophesying; during shooting in New York the Occupy Wall Street protests broke out, resembling those in the film and prompting Cronenberg to call Cosmopolis ‘a documentary instead of a fiction film’.
Once more in a David Cronenberg film, a car is at the heart of the action. Packer’s limo becomes his exoskeleton, a capitalist carapace in which to exert his wealth, power and control. With its stale, high-tech interior it feels more like a spaceship than a car, functioning simultaneously as a prison, a coffin and a throne in which Packer hides himself from the outside world. Sound from the outside the limo is almost entirely muted, forming a suffocating bubble in which Packer resides. As his financial empire crumbles Icarus-like, we see him try to escape this closed-off life by leaving the limo and interacting with people outside of it, but he finds himself confronted with hostility.
Perceiving the world from his car window, Packer reminds us on one hand of Travis Bickle, who skulked around the streets of New York in his vehicle, and the paparazzi-stalked actor playing Packer. The casting of Pattinson as the quasi-psychopathic playboy may be a surprising move, but he delivers a magnetically credible performance. Packer is a curious creation, a man who views life through a mathematic prism, obsessed with control and perfection, terrified of abnormalities and who insists on having daily health check-ups. It would be easy to interpret him as a symbol of American capitalism, but Pattinson succeeds in bringing out the humanity of his character, particularly in one scene where he is struck with grief for the death of an idol. Samantha Morton, Juliette Binoche, Mathieu Amalric and Paul Giamatti are all also excellent, the latter especially in a nail-bitingly tense stand-off that seems to go on forever.
In Pattinson’s own words, ‘You have to be incredibly sympathetic... to a movie that’s not sympathetic to you at all’. It’s a film that doesn’t present you with a likeable character for the most part, and makes little effort at emotional engagement. The silences between the words make for difficult viewing, as the usual music and sound that fill these gaps are stripped away. Cronenberg’s is the cinema of unease, and in Cosmopolis he continues to explore ways to make audiences squirm. If you’re prepared to put up with this, and the long discussions of the nature of the modern economy, then Cosmpopolis will be a compelling and rewarding experience from a director who continues to excite and experiment.