In David Cronenberg’s wildly imagined, but eerily familiar, version of New York City, the streets are filled with limousines that cart around billionaires and taxicabs driven by formerly impoverished immigrants. Cosmopolis, a faithful adaptation of brilliant social critic, Don Dellilo’s novel, packs the world with impassioned, yet purposeless, Occupy-like protestors, while a billionaire, undeterred by the fate of humanity, spends long conversations pondering the reasons why the state of the world is the way it is. The film proposes the concept of novelty intellectualism that has obsessed Delillo for years. The wealthy are not simply troll-like followers screwing over the poor, stupid souls that buy their products, but they are distant observers, with high levels of education. Unfortunately, their musings are out-of-touch and completely lost in the absorption of their own selfishness.
Cosmopolis tells the story of Eric Packer, a billionaire stock trader, who, at the age of 28, has millions floating around the banks of the world. His wealth is so extreme that he can spend the majority of the film inside of a limo traveling to a very specific spot for an apparently desperately needed haircut. As he rides through gridlocked traffic, caused by an overblown funeral for a famous rapper and a visit from the United States President, Eric has confounding conversations with everyone from lovers and colleagues to a would-be assassin about the state of the economy, the world, and why humans have an unstoppable penchant for consumption. The travel starts in a shark-like limo in uptown New York before slowly evolving into a graffiti-ridden vessel submerged in the chaos of protest. In the end, Eric’s fortune dissipates and he finds himself face to face with an ordinary citizen that’s convinced he can make a mark on the world by killing a rich and famous figure.
David Cronenberg is nothing if not ferociously committed to grotesque provocation. Age and carte blanche status as resident-auteur has done little to dampen Cronenberg’s obsessions with the flesh and the cinema’s ability to petrify humanity while manipulating real emotions. In Cosmopolis, lust-induced sex and direct violence is on full display during moments where Eric relieves himself just to know he can still feel. In addition to touch, Cronenberg pushes the limits of celluloid’s capacity to show senses by bringing smell into many scenes as well. The rich characters reek of money and sex while the poor, like Paul Giamatti’s assassin, smell of dirt and unwashed, urine-infested towels. Cronenberg’s respect for the viewer remains high as he asks us to listen to deep, wandering conversations. We are never let off the hook with exemplary cut-aways or explanatory diatribes. We watch pain and we feel sex, but the smells, the textures, and the nuances of contours revolving literally around a female body and figuratively within the computer screens, might escape us. Yet, all of these ideas are put forth with little comfort, as Cronenberg has not diminished but elevated his efforts to present ideas rather than plot lines through his films.
Cronenberg again proves his ability to craft performances that are neither easily categorized or over-the-top in their uniqueness. Robert Pattinson, with his zombie-like paleness used to full advantage, develops shades of vulnerability that believably usurp his initial frozen sense of wealthy coldness. Pattinson does not, on the surface, seem a human able to feel, much less one able to bring a viewer into his feelings in a connected way. Yet, by the end of Cosmopolis, even with our limited understanding of his motivations or past, we cannot help but be invested in Pattinson’s struggle. The last image of Cosmopolis will touch you as viewer. In that one moment, everything Cronenberg attempts to convey about both the disparity of wealth and the similarities of selfishness amongst class, comes out without any of the long-winded words that spew through most of the narrative.
Cosmopolis poses the question of what is the difference between order and chaos. By the end of the film, one must assume that for Cronenberg and Delillo there is little difference at all. Giamatti’s assassin has no defined purpose for his dream to be appreciated. Pattinson’s billionaire has made unfathomable amounts of money, but there is a desire inside him that still longs for the comfort of a neighborhood barbershop. He too has little idea of why he is what he is and why he does what he does. He demands that people speak “slowly and clearly,” as though a confused sentence might be an inexplicable break in the order he has set for his world. Later, Giamatti explains that just as an “asymmetrical prostrate” has no real meaning, the world can only flourish when both the powerful and the obedient come to gripes with how lop-sided things really are.
Much of the film plays from inside a limousine looking out at the slowly decaying streets. Through a use of sound that makes us feel like we are inside a silent vortex, sound-proofed from the outside and images that stretch the vehicle into an all-consuming sphere, Cronenberg creates an atmospheric mood. Never does it seem like we are just feet away from the chaos of anarchy. In fact, one might mistake Packer’s limo for the skyscraper apartments that exist above. The camera never swoops over the Manhattan skyline or even so much as looks up when moving outside the vessel. Of all Cronenberg’s projects, this one’s aesthetic reminded me most of Naked Lunch. The set design was very protracted, while always just a step away from a familiar reality. Both of these films are embedded in contemporary society, yet never fully inside of it. As a result, Cosmopolis felt like a throwback to a bygone era of set designs with details and tangible complexity, without being cradled in the use of post-production visual effects.
Like Cronenberg’s previous feature A Dangerous Method, Cosmopolis seems to be an example of a dying breed of American cinema. Thoughts and concepts come ahead of fundamentally comfortable storytelling. People will find problems with the scattered nature of the narrative, but, as with many of Jim Jarmusch’s best films, the idea is to use an interesting lead character as a vessel moving through space and time as a way to explore greater ideas about the culture we live in. From inside the confines of a supped-up limousine, Cosmopolis renders one of the more telling explorations of contemporary America to hit screens all year. [A-]