(Originally posted at www.tkatthemovies.com)
With A Dangerous Method and Cosmopolis, director David Cronenberg has taken a dramatic turn toward talky, intellectual dramas. Each movie is essentially a dense series of philosophical and theoretical conversations. It can be a maddening, exhausting structure, particularly for anyone expecting the mind-bending, gross out horror of Videodrome or The Fly. But Cosmopolis ultimately proves to be more than simply two hours of talk. Engrossing even when it meanders, the film escalates the danger as it tears its central character down. Dealing with preferred topics including sex, death, time and control, Cronenberg perhaps hasn’t changed so much after all.
The movie is confined to the world of Robert Pattinson’s Eric Packer, a 28-year-old billionaire. The one percenter embarks on a trip in his limo across Manhattan to get a haircut. Along the way, violent protest breaks out around him, his fortune crumbles, and his security chief warns of a threat against his life. But these “plot” points prove less important than Eric’s conversations about everything ranging from rats to self-immolation. Almost every character he encounters is a business associate of sorts, including his wife Elise (Sarah Gadon), suggesting an existence void of love or genuine connection. Completely built on his hunger for wealth, Eric’s world is numb and empty.
Heightening the insularity of Eric’s perspective, a significant percentage of Cosmopolis takes place in the limo. The vehicle of choice boasts a sleek interior, with several screens allowing Eric to monitor his worth and occasionally see what’s happening in the world. At the very back, he pompously sits on a leather throne. These scenes appear to have been shot on a set, with the exteriors glimpsed through windows added in post-production. Though it feels cheep and artificial, the final effect is a complete disconnect between the sanitized soullessness of the limo and everything else going outside. The sounds of the city are notably absent from the sound mix, creating an unsettling, otherworldly atmosphere.
Given the setting and the specificity of the perspective, the sometimes aggressively intellectual discussions suit the film. Eric talks to his chief of technology (Jay Baruchel), his currency analyst (Philip Nozuka) and a chief of theory (Samantha Morton). The conversations about technology, money and time are fascinating, but at times, sitting through them at full attention proves an endurance test. Even the most interesting insights prove difficult to recall after the fact, lost amidst the sheer density. But through the discourse, Cosmopolis valuably critiques the accelerated rhythms of contemporary society and the callousness of Wall Street.
Cosmopolis punctuates even its driest stretches with bits of madness, and the movie really picks up in its second half as Eric’s sanity disintegrates. The flip side of his numbness is a desire to truly feel something, to be dangerous. Seeing a protestor burning himself in the streets, Eric can only marvel at the bravery of the act and the pain, seemingly hungry to feel something that strong. Just as the media-saturated characters of Cronenberg’s Videodrome craved the nastiest entertainment, the wealth-obsessed Eric can never quench his thirst. The character is used to doing whatever he wants, so it’s no surprise things go awry once he gets his hands on a gun.
But throughout the film, even before the trip to the barber gets truly delirious, Cronenberg explores the human body, sex and death, career-long obsessions for the auteur. Much of the film centers on Eric’s ambivalence toward death. In his limo, he has daily checkups with a doctor, complete with prostate exams. There’s the sense that, amid the accelerated rhythms of a technology-dominated society, he’s gravely concerned about death, and he seems to think his money will save him. At other times, he appears indifferent about death, reacting to one murder with hardly a blink and to another with a grin. But Eric bawls when a young rapper, whose music plays in one of his two private elevators, tragically passes away. His understanding of death is contradictory, yet it seems to drive his actions.
The credits roll against Mark Rothko-inspired images, hearkening to Eric’s conversation with Juliette Binoche’s Didi about buying a church full of the artist’s paintings. She suggests the cathedral should be accessible to the public, but he scoffs at the idea of something he can’t buy. Cosmopolis probes the limitations of Eric’s power over the world around him and his delusional inability to accept that he’s no god. Similarly, he screws a number of women in the movie, but he can’t get in the pants of his own wife, whom he married for her old money wealth. Gadon’s Elise proves one of the few characters strong enough to stand up to Eric, to not give him his way. He doesn’t think there’s anything he can’t have, but some things are clearly out of his control.
Cosmopolis continues to grow on me. It drew me in as it went along, and I like it even more as I think back on it. Cronenberg’s latest requires a great deal of attention and focus, and a viewer’s patience with it has a great deal to do with their tolerance for meandering, intellectual conversations. Anyone, though, should be able to appreciate the sheer power of Pattinson’s performance, a fierce turn that captures the numbness, hunger and ultimately instability of Wall Street. Though few viewers will relate to or sympathize with Eric, Pattinson gives the character a seductive quality that will keep you hooked to the chilling end.