28 year old New York City billionaire Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) sets out in his state of the art stretch limo with the intent of getting a haircut. It won’t be an easy ride as traffic is backed up considerably due to the President being in town, anarchist protesters all over the city as well as the funeral for a Sufi rapper taking place in the streets. Along the way Packer is informed that due to a risky bet against the Chinese Yuan the company of which he is the CEO is losing its fortunes by the minute and that there has been a very credible threat made against his life. Despite the bad news Packer seems to care very little and as the day moves forward his trek to the barber becomes more and more unusual and Packer’s carefully ordered life slowly begins to crumble all around him.
A bizarre experience even by Cronenberg standards, Cosmopolis is a film that, much like Crash, almost dares its audience to enjoy it. Confined to the inside of a limousine for the majority of the film and featuring some of the most clinical dialogue in cinematic history, Cosmopolis is perhaps Cronenberg’s most cerebral film yet, and it also happens to be one of his most fascinating in the way he presents the character of Packer and his (d)evolution. The film is comparable to Crash in the sense that like the characters of James and Catherine Ballard, Packer has become so bored and alienated by his existence that his fall from grace is the exact thing he needed to feel “alive” again so to speak. This is reflected by Pattinson’s performance, still and (purposefully) robotic while in the limo during the first half of the film and becoming increasingly more animated the more the film moves forward and the action leaves the car. The utter randomness of Packer’s encounters and interactions with other characters is another one of its strengths as it gives the film a feeling of unpredictability making it all the more compelling wondering just where its all going to end up. While Cronenberg is quick to point out that the film takes place in the “real world”, the film does share some qualities with eXistenZ in that Packer has essentially created his own artificial reality except he doesn’t need to insert a game pod into his spine, his limo is his escape.
The main criticism of the film seems to be, and understandably so, the dialogue, however without it the film wouldn’t have worked at all (although detractors would claim its precisely why the film doesn‘t work!). According to Cronenberg, the majority of the dialogue was lifted from the book 99.9% verbatim which was a masterstroke as these characters needed to speak in such dense, clinical and precise terms, it suits their nature, having them speak in any other way would have taken away the aura of the film which was already hypnotic enough in an almost Naked Lunch sort of way when considering the aforementioned random nature of the proceedings. The words may have been DeLillo’s, not to mention quite timely, its been suggested that the novel predicted the financial crisis as well as the occupy Wall Street movement and indeed the film could be interpreted as metaphorical considering recent economic events, but conceptually they’re pure Cronenberg. Pay extra close attention to the comments made during the final moments of conversation between Packer and his Chief of Theory played by Samantha Morton. These are concepts Cronenberg has been exploring going all the way back to Videodrome (1983). Speaking of Morton, she’s one part of a phenomenal supporting cast alongside Pattinson including Juliette Binoche, who’s introduction in the film is rather memorable, Kevin Durand, Sarah Gadon, who’s glacial performance of Packer’s distant wife Elise is reminiscent of Deborah Kara Unger’s equally icy turn in Crash, and a brief but show stealing appearance from Paul Giamatti.
Again, in the short time since its release Cosmopolis has proven to be Cronenberg’s most dividing film since Crash with the majority of negative reviews throwing around the notorious “P” word, pretentious with reckless abandon. Not that the reaction is all that surprising as the film is the antithesis of “mass appeal” (even with Pattinson as the lead the films theatrical run in America was ridiculously limited) although some of the reviews have been quite comical in the sense that it would appear that the film had somehow personally offended the viewer in some way. Granted some of those could have come from those unfamiliar with Cronenberg’s past work only watching the film because of Pattinson, who by the way, deserves a plethora of kudos for taking on a role such as this, those who are hesitant to watch the film because him would be wise to set aside such prejudices. The fact that Cronenberg is still making the type of visionary and radical films that can invoke such extreme reactions well over 35 years into his career is a testament to his uncompromising artistry, an artistry that Cronenberg fans have long been familiar with, making Cosmopolis an essential film for the Cronenberg faithful to check out as it sees him continue to explore new territories while at the same time revisiting familiar obsessions in a way that never feels rehashed or recycled.