If you took a random sampling of a hundred people off the street, people from various walks of life, I could imagine no more than five or six of them would connect to David Cronenberg’s newest film, COSMOPOLIS. Of course, those five or six people will probably be intrigued by this unique film and may be as enthusiastic in their fascination with it as the other 94 people are in their hatred of it. For the purposes of this review, I will state up front that I would be one of those few people.
On the surface, the plot could not sound simpler – a man goes across town to get a haircut. But this is no ordinary man, this is no ordinary town and this is to be no ordinary haircut. Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) is one of those Masters of the World that pops up now and then. He was a whiz kid who made an insane fortune discovering patterns and analyzing the numbers of cybercommerce down to the most infinitesimal decimal. As his knack for knowing everything at all times has continued, his wealth has increased and he has lost more of his soul. He’s one of those predatory animals, able to read people like a spreadsheet and using that to his advantage. He has applied this knowledge to every one of his interpersonal relationships, from business colleagues, employees, sexual partners and his frigid wife. He is also paranoid about his own health, receiving daily doctor’s checkups, no matter where he is.
Despite his overall concern with his health, he is increasingly reckless with his behavior, dismissing the various credible threats to his safety as he makes his way across the city. During his long journey, he is told of a presidential motorcade which has everyone antsy and reroutes traffic – “Entire streets wiped off the map,” his Chief of Security notes. Anarchist protesters riot in the streets, protesting the disproportionate division between rich and poor. And then there is the direct threat to his own safety – an unknown man, somewhere out there in the city, who for some reason, wants to kill him.
Despite assurances from his staff, Eric knows he is vulnerable, because for the first time he may have miscalculated. He has bet against the Chinese yuan and is in danger of losing most or all of his fortune if he’s wrong. This has caused him to barrel forward towards his date with destiny, one that will inevitably bring him either to his downfall or his rebirth.
Eric’s mode of transportation is its own character within the film – a stretch limo every bit as enigmatic as he is. The limo is soundproofed from the outside world, silent as the world erupts around him. There is every amenity needed – food, drink, waste disposal. Video screens alert him to what is going on outside and he can tap into seemingly any video feed on the planet. Endless data streams pour into the cab, feeding endless numbers, currency, code and patterns into his line of sight – all the things he works with in order to further his existence. The limo is protected by bulletproof armor, less anyone make good on their threats to destroy him. Like Eric himself, the limo is simultaneously plugged in and yet detached from anything and everything.
Eric encounters many people on his slow journey. He discusses, in the most abstract manner possible, his current situation with business partners, whiz kids, friends, underlings and sexual liaisons. Some he brings into his inner sanctum, occasionally he ventures out into harm’s way to encounter them. The one person to have no knowledge of interest in Eric’s world is his high society wife of only a few weeks (Sarah Gadon – A DANGEROUS METHOD, THE MOTH DIARIES), a person he always needs to leave his world to encounter.
The first thing that one notices about COSMOPOLIS is the dialogue. From the beginning, it lets us know that this will not be an easy film for the casual viewer. The language used in this film is melodramatic, technical, philosophical and extremely verbose. The dialogue is the tool the film uses to both obstruct and unlock the labyrinthian puzzles contained within. People speak on wealth, world crisis, death, sex and taxi drivers in equally dramatic and cerebral fashion. If that doesn’t interest you, COSMOPOLIS is not for you.
Cronenberg’s film is surreal and absurd. Exploring the nature of humanity by those who seem most removed from it. At one point, the view outside the limo captures a protester immolating himself. The gesture intrigues Eric while his colleague (Samantha Morton) barely notes the graphic death they have just witnessed. “It’s not original,” she says dismissively.
COSMOPOLIS is original. What has made Cronenberg one of the most consistently fascinating directors are the new, dangerous territories he explores. He has always been uncompromising and unique. Recent sojourns into more relatable territory like A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE and EASTERN PROMISES may have caused some to momentarily forget that this is the same man who brought us CRASH and VIDEODROME. If they have, his latest film is a stark reminder of this.
In fact, CRASH seems to be the Cronenberg film that COSMOPOLIS shares its closest kinship with. Naturally, I’m not speaking of the preachy, heavy-handed race relations film, but Cronenberg’s dissection of the marriage between our sexual relationships and our inseparability with technology. CRASH was Cronenberg’s most controversial and divisive film. To some, it was morally repellant. To others, it was thematically elusive. To a select audience, it was astonishing. COSMOPOLIS would seem to rub people in a similar manner, and similarly discusses how our interpersonal relationships have been informed and obscured by an overpowering presence in first world society – in this case, capitalism, pattern recognition, business, economics and again, technology.
Robert Pattinson needs to carry much of this film and he does a fine job. Because Eric Packer is such an elusive and sometimes mechanical figure, Pattinson will need to prove himself in a more emotional role in order to show how much he’s grown as an actor. Nevertheless, he does interesting things with a risky and difficult role.
Howard Shore continues to be one of Cronenberg’s most important collaborators, again creating a subtle soundtrack of guitar fuzz and electronic chords. This time, the music is performed in part by one of the better recent bands out there, Metric.
Once is not enough to see COSMOPOLIS. It is a complex film with enigmas within enigmas. It’s also a ballsy, uncompromising film for people who are a little more adventurous with their film choices. This is not a film for everyone. It’s a film for the very, very few. That does not make COSMOPOLIS as elitist as Eric Packer. It just makes it all the more strange, distinguished and crucial to an increasingly mundane modern cinematic landscape. ★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
– Rated R for some strong sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language
– Running time: 1 hr 49 mins