Occasionally, if you write about movies for a living, you will come across one that will simply frustrate any and all attempts you make to write about it. “Cosmopolis” is one such beast, wild and ugly and cold and unwilling to give the viewer any of the standard kicks that they have been taught to expect from genre films, even those created by the uber-smart David Cronenberg.
I was decidedly not onboard for his last film, “A Dangerous Method,” and it left me depressed afterwards. I have been a fan of Cronenberg’s work since early exposure, and I think a major part of my own aesthetic standards were defined in some small part by the movies he’s been making as long as I’ve been watching movies. I remember the first time I saw “The Brood” the way I remember things that actually happened to me. I remember “Scanners” that way. I remember “Videodrome” that way.
These weren’t movies that I just brushed off after I saw them. They rewired me. Each of them felt like an assault on my perceptions of what the world does and what it means. When he began to evolve away from the more easily defined horror work of his early career, I was more than willing to follow. I love “Naked Lunch.” I love “Dead Ringers.” I love “Crash”. I love that he exists. I love that the movies he makes seem to all have arrived via special delivery from an alternate dimension where an alien intelligence is creating drama to try to explain us based on observation. It’s like he just barely feels a connection to us, but he wants to understand. Even his more overtly “straight” dramas like “Eastern Promises” or “A History Of Violence” carry hidden depravities, and they seem to all be engineered to detonate over time.
“Cosmopolis” seems to be a perfect fit for Cronenberg, and my experience with the film was complicated a bit by the screening room where I saw it. There was no air conditioning, and it was mid-afternoon during the recent crazy heat here in LA. The screening room was completely full, every seat taken, and by the middle of the film, I was so hot I felt like I was slow-motion-fainting. Awful. And with a film that’s designed to make you uncomfortable anyway, my first reaction was to recoil.
I walked away blaming the movie, but thinking it over for the last week or so, I can’t get it out of my head. It’s exquisitely made, carefully controlled, a simmering look into the dead empty eyes of Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) as Rome burns around him. Based on a novel by Don DeLillo, it’s all character, all mood, a slow surreal ride through Manhattan during a meltdown that seems to have been caused, in part, by his own hubris, and Pattinson is fascinating in the role. He seems to constantly be shifting through a complicated but subterranean inner implosion, pieces of himself shutting down at random, little by little. His stated goal for the day is simple enough. He wants a haircut. Never mind that the entire city seems to be on high alert thanks to the visit of a President and construction and protests and traffic and madmen and giant rats and angry wives and dirty lovers, all complications thrown in the path of Packer as he attempts to make his way across this tiny island, locked inside his sterile bubble.
I do not think I’m out of line when I observe that Robert Pattinson is from outer space. Part of what makes him so compelling in the film is that whatever weirdness Cronenberg throws at him, he rolls with it, staring out of that blank passive face with furious eyes. People race in and out of his personal orbit. He gets a physical from a doctor inside the cab at one point, carrying on a conversation while this guy’s got half his arm inside him, and the way Pattinson plays that scene is impressive. On the whole, Pattinson delivers in this difficult role, and I can’t picture anyone else tuning in more completely to what Cronenberg has done here.
It helps that Pattinson interacts with truly great performances from the supporting cast. Juliette Binoche shows up to have some sex, drink some booze, and lay some ugly truth on Pattinson’s character. Sarah Gadon is Packer’s wife, newly married and already looking for a way out, away from this shark-eyed and alien “other” who she has barely gotten to know as a husband. Jay Baruchel and Kevin Durand both do sharp and specific work in small roles here, and there’s a wonderful but oh-so-short appearance by Samantha Morton as well. Paul Giamatti almost steals the film in the last ten minutes, and it’s a testament to how good Pattinson is in the film that he stands there and refuses to let Giamatti run away with it. He gives as good as he gets. Giamatti is great, giving voice to all the frustration and powerlessness of everyone caught up in these forces at work in the modern world, these soft little boys dressed up in expensive suits, untouchable in their coffins on wheels. Giamatti is determined to break through the expressionless exterior of Packer to find the soft and vulnerable heart, and once he does, he plans to rip it out.
Tech credits are impressive, and little wonder. Cronenberg is in familiar hands here. Peter Suschitzky shot the film and Howard Shore wrote the score, and their contributions are a big part of that sleek, propulsive feeling that makes the film feel so unrelenting. It is gorgeous, a beautiful movie about a rancid world, and it feels like the kind of film that will reward repeat viewings, a movie so loaded with detail that it almost dares you to absorb it all on that first viewing. Cronenberg may not make overt horror films these days, but there is a greasy, nervous quality to this entire movie that could only be accomplished by a filmmaker as in control as this one, and my bet is that the film will make audiences wildly uncomfortable by design. People lured in by the presence of Pattinson will not be prepared for just how different he is in the film, and I love the idea of people expanding their cinematic appetites because of his mainstream work, only to discover this poison pill.
“Cosmopolis” is now playing in limited release.