Boyishly lean, with a brooding angularity that suggests both high maintenance and nefarious vacancy, Robert Pattinson has managed to fill the role of a grade-A male sex symbol without ever evincing anything like carnal energy, to top the Hollywood A-list as a representative of the undead. Pattinson’s casting in Cosmopolis as Eric Packer, a 28-year-old finance prodigy ensconced in a stretch limo on a 24-hour odyssey across Manhattan to get a haircut, gives director David Cronenberg (who has sole screenplay credit for the first time since 1999’s eXistenZ) an automatic meta-text to play with. Updating Don DeLillo’s post-9/11 New York story into an ambiguous, dry black comedy, Cronenberg subverts a postmillennial mass media moment that considers this guy to be the male ideal.
Pattinson, dead-eyed and always on the verge of a smirk, plays Packer as the embodiment of post-Empire cool, a less-than-zero cipher of a personality. He’s a citizen of the world whose philosophical objection to traditional notions of national borders or cultural hierarchies gives him permission to live in a bubble.
He certainly travels in one. His limo, he brags, has been “Prousted”—meaning lined with cork, like the room In Search of Lost Time was finished in, to keep out the noise of the street and its rabble. Stuck in traffic all day in that supposedly secure space, Packer meets with members of his corporate team, learns there are threats on his life, watches as the head of the International Monetary Fund is assassinated during a live TV appearance, and keeps an obsessive eye on the yuan; he has hitched his fortune on a bet that the Chinese currency is going to drop in value, but it only rises. Juliette Binoche drops in for a writhing quickie; Packer’s female financial adviser is brought to the brink of orgasm by watching her boss’s daily, mid-commute prostate exam. He even talks about “assaulting the borders of perception” and claims clairvoyance.
He has to rely on chance meetings to see his new wife, Elise (Sarah Gadon), such as when his limo happens to stop in traffic next to her yellow taxi. An icy blonde who speaks in a breathy monotone and rarely blinks, every time she encounters her husband, she seems vaguely unsure if they’ve ever met. In that sense, she’s a surrogate for the viewer.
In another sense, too: Elise proves to be the rare woman closed to Eric’s advances. The world, easily coaxed by charisma backed by cash, is open to his ministrations and manipulations. His wife, who has her own money and claims to regard sex as a drain on her creative energy, is not. Or maybe she’s just turned off, as anyone would be, by her husband’s appraisal of her assets: “You have your mother’s breasts. Great, stand-up tits.”
Cosmopolis is the first film based on a DeLillo novel. The original text was released to mixed reviews in 2003, but today, it reads as a prescient encapsulation of the current moment’s economic tumult, with public space defined by a tug-of-war between the reckless power brokers who spawned that tumult and the performance-art-like protest that has risen in response. Postmodernist cred notwithstanding, DeLillo held to the traditional novelistic tactic of introducing a character by telling the reader what was happening in his head. “Nothing existed around him,” DeLillo writes on page 2 of Chapter 1. “There was only the noise in his head, the mind in time. When he died, he would not end. The world would end.” These lines seem key to Cronenberg’s adaptation: Translating a written text into a visual medium, he declines to define a difference between internal and external. What is real? Who cares? The noise in Packer’s head is all there is. Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis unfolds as an unbroken stream of the character’s consciousness, so narrowly wedded to the way this loathsome master of the universe sees the world that we can’t actually see him. Call it a long night of the soulless.
Cronenberg’s opacity of tone is most successful in a scene in which Packer is lectured on the esoterics of techno-capital by Vija Kinsky (Samantha Morton)—his “chief of theory”—while his limo is rocked by a protest-turned-riot. The business associates speak fluently, and hilariously, in the poetry of the late-capitalist snake charmers who constitute the so-called ideas circuit. “Money has lost its narrative quality, the way painting did once upon a time,” she intones. Outside the window of the car, a protester self-immolates. “It’s not original,” the chief of theory sniffs. “It’s an appropriation.” We’re seeing Packer at his most inhumane—clinking glasses while New York burns—and yet in the exhilaration, he clearly feels in his own secret financial self-destruction, which in terms of endgame more or less jibes with what the protesters are asking for, the character is also at his most in tune with the outside world.
Cronenberg, the great auteur of the divided self, seems to run out of fuel after that, even as the story’s structure gives him further opportunity to explore his pet themes. To the extent that Cosmopolis functions as a super-literal conceptual exercise, it’s simultaneously irritating and fascinating. But much of the film fails to function as drama and never more so than in the interminable final scene, a two-hander in which Packer finally confronts his would-be assassin in what could be rooms of his own mind. As the standoff escalates, music crescendoes to underline that we’re supposed to be feeling . . . something. That we don’t might be Cronenberg’s own endgame.