David Cronenberg made his name with the “body-horror” genre, one which he practically invented. Still, even after decades of his “weird” films garnering critical acclaim and a cult fanbase, Cronenberg decided to tread new ground with the 21st century, alienating some longtime fans but also bringing forth a new group with twin Viggo Mortensen-starring gangster flicks A History of Violence and Eastern Promises (as well as Spider which bridges the two eras). With Cosmopolis, an adaptation of a Don DeLillo novel, Cronenberg goes back to “weird,” but he mostly stays away from the body horror (though a few quick scenes assure us that it’s the same Cronenberg), a move that will surely delight longtime fans without dissuading his new followers.
Most of Cosmopolis takes place in the limo of billionaire Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson, of Twilight fame), but because traffic is so slow (thanks to a high-profile funeral, higher-profile visit from the President of the United States, and violent riots in the streets), Packer has time to invite co-workers and mistresses in with him and to eat meals with his wife of “a few weeks.” Why does Packer insist on crossing the normally grid-locked New York City in this mess? Because he wants a haircut, and there’s only one place he is willing to get it, even if he has to deal with threats against his own life along the way.
Sound weird enough? It gets better. Packer doesn’t need a haircut, and whether his wife’s remark is a case of lampshade-hanging or intended to tell us something about Packer is never too clear, and it does not seem terribly important, either. Still, Cronenberg choice to not modify Don DeLillo’s dialogue brings an unorthodox enchantment to these issues, even if the lines sound a bit ridiculous when they are spoken. Most of the conversations involve the crossroads between philosophy and economy, or are about everyday matters (haircuts and sex, primarily), and it’s those latter moments where the stylized, provocatively vague conversations, delivered with total indifference, prove themselves as more experimental than meaningful. Pattinson plays Packer with a blank slate (albeit one longing for sex), and regardless of who is talking to him or what they are talking about, he refuses to let any of Packer’s complexity or depth become visible. Then again, the fault is not all his; Cosmopolis’ characters talk and talk, but with so little exposition and even less actually said in a clear way, the audience has no place. We can only watch as characters who believe themselves to be far smarter than us debate the merits of things we are never given a chance to understand. There are a few moments, such as the conversation leading up to a self-immolation and the film’s final scene that are spoken in a language we understand, but these rare instances do not excuse the pretensions that surround them so thickly.
Despite the mass shortcomings in the screenplay, Cronenberg has a way of making every scene seem genuinely important. It’s hard to care if Packer and his employees could have tracked the exchange rate of Chinese currency better than they did, but the way Cronenberg treats these scenes, we begin to think that we should. Background noise is mixed very low. We know for a fact that there is a lot of surrounding noise—we can hear how crowded it is, even if it is not loud—but that the only clearly audible conversations are Packer’s grants each sentence spoken to him or by him a life-or-death urgency. That most of these take place inside a limousine that seems far more spacious than it really is (as we can see from exterior shots) is a testament to his Cronenberg’s fine manipulation of space, and it lets the picture breathe more than a talk-fest we are thrown into the middle of could ever be expected to. There is a heavy reliance on shot/reverse-shot framing, but anytime the pattern breaks, it feels significant, even if the dialogue itself doesn’t.
What emerges from all the awkwardness is a curious character study; Packer’s constant sex and his conversations about sex with his wife suggest an inability to ever get close to anyone, and his blatant disregard for his own safety is less suicidal than self-discovery. The business talk, even if designed solely to illuminate Packer, is less intelligent than it appears. As a result, Cosmopolis comes off as empty philosophizing at worst or a light portrait of a personal/professional dichotomy at best. Either way, its deliberate style makes it one of the more unique films you are likely to see anytime soon, even if you don’t find much substance to go along with it, and the slickness of the film alone can disguise the obvious flaws, but they cannot remove them.