David Cronenberg’s new film stars Robert Pattinson as young billionaire Eric Packer, who rides across New York City in a limo, to get a haircut.
It’s a bizarre premise, based on Don DeLillo’s novel, but then this is Cronenberg, master of the bizarre. It gets stranger with his screenplay; a number of deliberately abstract and artificial conversations between Packer and an assortment of other characters, in or outside the limo.
The big problem is that this stylised script is perhaps too impenetrable, making it hard to know what’s going on, and harder to invest in any of it. Cronenberg is at his best when visually representing ideas, in gory, fleshy detail. Here, he lets the dialogue speak for itself, and while his writing can be just as powerful as his visuals, we really need the visceral power of classic Cronenberg. All this wordiness feels like a bit of a waste, especially when many of the ideas dealt with have been explored in films like Fight Club, American Psycho or even Taxi Driver, all of which have strong narratives in which we can invest emotionally.
In fact, Packer is reminiscent of American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman, particularly in his strange relationship with his wife, but Pattinson has none of Christian Bale’s unhinged magnetism. Granted, Packer is supposed to be completely detached and cold, making Pattinson something of a perfect choice. There’s also the possibility that casting him, the helm of such a famous, tacky franchise, is itself a clever critique of capitalism. Hopefully a load of Twilight fans will see Cosmopolis just to see their favourite boring Vampire, only to be utterly dumbstruck by the opaque dialogue and lack of werewolves.
Despite these problems, Cosmopolis remains completely mesmerising throughout, thanks to its atmosphere that can only be described as Cronenbergian; it’s not rich or immersive, rather it’s so cold and so focused on surfaces that there’s a pervasive sense of artificiality, which makes us feel that something is never quite right. Visually, it’s science-fictional, as the limo looks like a spaceship and the world outside looks apocalyptic; there’s a beautiful, dystopian sense of finality throughout, that everything is coming to an end.
Cosmopolis is constantly reminiscent of Crash, one of Cronenberg’s most infamous films, not only thanks to its visual style and, well, all the sex in cars, but also its music, provided once again by Cronenberg’s long-term collaborator Howard Shore; there’s not enough of it, due to the film’s deliberate stillness, but when the music cranks up at the end we’re right back in the weird, twangy dissonance of Crash. We’re in familiar territory thematically too, as Cronenberg’s obsession with the viral, the body and (self) destruction as a creative and beautiful act are mapped onto capitalism and the economy.
Special mention must go to Paul Giamatti, whose character is probably the most rounded, and brings to mind J.F. Sebastian from Blade Runner. His sole scene becomes the intense beating heart of the film, as he emotionally spits out dialogue which had been previously alienating in its coldness, and deliberately so.
After A Dangerous Method, which was impressive but ultimately conventional, it’s exciting to see Cronenberg properly off the leash; the fleshy, sinewy leash. The result is something that, while artistically challenging, doesn’t entirely work, but leaves you eagerly awaiting his next move.