Canadian director David Cronenberg is still perhaps best known for his extreme horror cinema of the 1980’s such as Scanners, Videodrome and The Fly where the line between graphic body horror and examinations of his characters psychology. In recent years the psychological aspects of his work have come more to the fore and some may say it appears more conventional, most notably his recent works with Viggo Mortensen. Now he unites with young superstar Robert Pattinson for an adaptation of Don Delillo’s 2003 novel Cosmopolis. Expectations are high not just for the auteur’s new work but also but many are keen to see if Pattinson has the acting chops to pull of such an awaited film in the critical community. Cosmopolis certainly cannot be described as conventional but there may not be a lot of overly positive things to say about it…
Pattinson plays Eric Packer, a 28 year old financier working for ‘The Complex’ with millions at his disposal and divorced from society, who decides on a whim to travel across New York City, in his hi-tech, sound proof stretch limousine for a haircut. His security officer warns him that the arrival of the President, resultant crowds of protesters and a possible threat against his life make such a journey a potential hazard. Packer is resolute on his decision and what sounds like a simple journey spirals into a surreal odyssey as he cruises through an urban landscape populated by angst ridden colleagues, his distant wife, financial doomsayers, revolutionary protesters and a cream pie wielding anarchist. No, really.
Cronenberg’s direction is astonishingly precise to the point of extreme alienation. Taking place almost entirely within Packer’s science fiction like limo, his camera rarely has room to manoeuvre and instead we slowly glide across the cold, metallic surfaces that constitute this character’s life. CGI backstreet projection in these scenes creates a heightened sense of artificiality that mirrors Packer’s attitude to life. There are echoes of American Psycho in the fetishist style the camera roves over his material wealth. When we venture outside the limo, there is still an achingly claustrophobic feel to the urban environment. It’s a director at the height of their technical skills and yet it is in the cold, distant approach that Cronenberg observes the drama is that Cosmopolis makes its major stumble; the lack of emotional and visceral connection.
It is the dialogue that drives Cosmopolis, adapted by Cronenberg himself. Practically every scene is dialogue driven with characters spieling into lengthy, philosophical monologues about the world of finance, yuppie culture and in some circumstances whatever seems to come into their heads (‘Why do they call them airports?’). These lines are delivered with a very precise rhythm and arcane structure that very quickly becomes impenetrable despite occasional flashes of brilliance. There is little fault in the performance. Robert Pattinson could be blamed of making a very deliberate attempt to distance himself from the Twilight crowd, but his performance itself is fine. The camera is clearly drawn to his handsome features, he has cold and detached down to a tee and even performs gamely in a wince inducing medical examination scene, which closely recalls the director’s back catalogue of body horror. However Packer is such an empty ‘vessel’ that it’s impossible to drum up any sympathy at all for him. Where is he going? What does he want? What does he think? Questions are constantly answered but rarely answered. At one point he is directly quoted St Augustine; ‘I have become an enigma to myself, and therein lies my sickness.’ The problem is that the enigma never reveals itself and the sickness is never understood. It all becomes lost as he ventures from one bizarre set piece to another. I truly don’t think the problem is with Pattinson’s performance but rather through Cronenberg’s writing and direction of him.
The supporting cast are left to fare little better. Juliette Binoche and Samantha Morton pop up briefly into the limo to discuss Packer’s situation yet are not afforded rounded characters to flesh out. Sarah Gadon is alluring as Packer’s distant wife yet again there is such a sense of distance between them that it seems like their relationship is taking place on either side of a massive piece of perplex. You could argue that it’s the point yet no empathy still results in no emotional connection. Thankfully Mathieu Amalric is bursting at the seams with dangerous glee as a seemingly demented celebrity anarchist whilst the great Paul Giamatti very nearly steals the whole show as a disgruntled former employee of ‘The Complex’ who harbours an obsessive grudge against Packer. His ranting speech towards the end of the film makes him the closest thing to a recognisable human being we can see with the final shot and lines of dialogue hinting at how Cosmopolis could have been a devastating account of our contemporary attitude to material wealth and the Wall Street elite. Unfortunately it’s too little too late.
Cosmopolis is not terrible by any standard, but given the subject matter and the calibre of talent it can’t help but rank as a major disappointment and one of Cronenberg’s least satisfying films. Pattinson may have proved he has the chops but he’s going to need to find something more resolute to prove to everyone he is the real deal after all.