By Matt Zoller Seitz | Press Play September 12, 2012 at 10:30AM
David Cronenberg’s movie version of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, a black comedy about a financier whose life is falling apart, is a snapshot of Western civilization in existential panic. It’s the early 21st century. Labels and categories are blurring or dissolving. Economies and governments are disintegrating too, melting like Cronenbergian flesh. We humans don’t know who we are anymore as individuals, as a nation, as a race, as a species. Everything—philosophy, politics, religion, economics—has become data. So it's no wonder DeLillo’s characters compulsively narrate their lives, stating, in hilariously hyper-specific words, what they think, feel, and believe, defining and re-defining themselves as they speak: “What happens to all these stretch limos that prowl the throbbing city all day long?” “One learns about the countries where war is occurring by riding the taxis here.” “You have your mother’s breasts.” “Talent is more erotic when it’s wasted.” “A person rises on a word and falls on a syllable.” The words sound desperate even when delivered in a DeLillo/Cronenberg fervent/mesmerized monotone. “This is good,” says one member of a conversation. “We sound like people talk. This is how they talk.” But language is not enough. “Life is evolving so fast,” a character muses, “that language can’t keep up.”
Rob Pattinson stars as Eric Packer, the aforementioned billionaire—a 28-year asset manager inching through Manhattan in his stretch limo, headed for a haircut appointment. When the story begins, he’s cool and collected, if a bit frayed around the edges. He thinks he’s insulated from harm by his wealth, his tank-like limousine, his deadpan driver (Abdul Ayoola), and his unflappable chief of security (Kevin Durand). But he doesn’t control anything. His limo can’t get anywhere because a presidential visit and a beloved rapper’s public funeral have gridlocked the city. Eric’s brittle young wife Elise Schifrin (Sarah Gadon) won’t have sex with him because, she says, she wants to conserve her energy for her career; she’s also hip to his alpha-male infidelities, and she keeps insisting he smells sex on him. (“It’s hunger you smell,” he says, lamely.) He can’t really control his fortune, either. He thinks he’s made smart investments, but soon enough his net worth trends downward.
All these frustrations and misfortunes feel less like moralistic punishment than something more chillingly mysterious: a disaster/miracle creeping over everything, like the Airborne Toxic Event in DeLillo’s 1986 novel White Noise. “I think you acquire information and turn it into something awful,” Elise tells him at one point, unwittingly describing what society itself has been doing for decades. As Arthur Jensen bellowed in Network, “There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immense, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars.” Or to quote Johnny in Mike Leigh’s Naked, “Well, basically, there was this little dot, right? And the dot went bang and the bang expanded. Energy formed into matter, matter cooled, matter lived, the amoeba to fish, to fish to fowl, to fowl to frog, to frog to mammal, the mammal to monkey, to monkey to man, amo amas amat, quid pro quo, memento mori, ad infinitum, sprinkle on a little bit of grated cheese and leave under the grill till Doomsday.”
This is the smallest movie Cronenberg has directed in a long time, and yet its containment seems more like a proof of his ability than a constraint. Even though Cronenberg wrote the script for the screen, I will always think of Cosmopolis as a filmed play, one of the best I’ve seen. It compresses DeLillo’s novel (which itself feels play-like in spots) without trying to “open it out,” as hack movie producers are always begging playwrights to do. Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, James Foley’s Glengarry Glen Ross, Tom Noonan’s What Happened Was…, and Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street and My Dinner With Andre pursued a strategy similar to Cronenberg's. Roughly 60% of the movie occurs inside Eric’s limo, its ribbed dark interior evoking the telepod in Cronenberg’s The Fly; the other 40% takes place on streets and sidewalks and in garages and claustrophobic nightclubs packed with writhing bodies. Its climax is a ten-minute conversation between Eric and a shadowy tormentor (Paul Giamatti) in a depopulated, run-down warehouse. By that point, we’re so starved for open air that its narrow hallways and cluttered offices feel as big as palace throne rooms.
Even though its tone is resigned and mordantly funny and its pace is slow, Cosmopolis is a thrillingly spare, controlled work. But you have to be willing to adapt to its sleepwalking mood and to its performances, which occur within such a narrow emotional bandwidth that at one point I pictured an orchestra conductor handing a violinist a Stradivarius with one string and saying, “You can make beautiful music with this, trust me.” Every actor rises to the challenge. The movie features one bizarre knockout supporting turn after another: Juliette Binoche as a lover who interrogates Eric after fucking him; Gadon’s Elise, whose beyond-her-years cynicism is a bulwark against emotional collapse; Durand’s security guy Torval, who’s got more didja-know tidbits than Johnny the Shoeshine Guy on Police Squad! but ultimately comes to seem like just another lost soul blustering through chaos. Giamatti’s all-out anguish in the finale almost steals the picture from Pattinson.
But the star never loses his grip. I never would have guessed from the Twilight movies that he was capable of a performance this intelligent, despairing, and honest; at his best he reminded me of James Spader’s character in sex, lies and videotape, a smug bastard who intellectualizes his selfishness into faux-philosophy. If Pattinson gets nominated for awards for Cosmopolis, the clip should be the scene where Eric carries on a high-flown conversation while enduring the longest prostate exam in history, an invasion of an asshole’s asshole. But there’s a real person beneath Eric’s shellacked surface, and when it finally cracks—in a surprisingly tender exchange with a rapper (Gouchy Boy) grieving for his dead hero and his own mortality—the character’s pain feels real, and true.
Cronenberg doesn’t just ask his actors to be ascetics. He keeps the camera far back whenever possible, cuts to closeups as punctuation, and sometimes lets amazingly intense moments run from one angle for a minute or longer, the better to allow us to scrutinize speakers and listeners. This stripped-down approach makes Cosmopolis feel a bit like live TV drama from the ‘50s, devoted mainly to performance and dialogue but constantly thinking in pictures. An opening scene featuring Love Boat-level rear-screen projection would sink lesser films, but here it seems to fit because the action is (for all its perversity, violence and sudden bursts of emotion) more figurative than literal.
More so than any other Cronenberg film—including the manifesto-like Play of Ideas eXistenZ—this one feels like a summing up of everything he’s been telling and showing us since the 1970s. Flesh, identity, consciousness are all prone to disintegrate or morph. By adapting a book by DeLillo, a fellow chronicler of slow-motion apocalypse, the filmmaker expands his vision to encompass a species grappling with cataclysmic change.
Matt Zoller Seitz is the co-founder of Press Play.