Eric Packer is a billionaire. He rarely makes eye contact with anyone, not even his newlywed wife. He tends to to refer to himself in majestic plural — the royal “we.” He inches across congested Manhattan in his bulletproof limousine, browsing currency rates on digital screens. He adorns his house with two elevators: One plays rap music by Brutha Fez, a respected artist and Eric’s friend, while the second moves at one-quarter speed and plays Satie. The latter “makes him whole,” he says. Eric Packer is 28 years old, and today, he wants a haircut.
That is more than you need to know of Packer, played by Twilight’s Robert Pattinson, for he operates more as a symbol than as a real human being. David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, based on Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel, clearly marks Packer as an evil agent of capitalism and all its inhuman excesses. But toppling the one-percent through allegory is too easy, not to mention an empty exercise. Instead, DeLillo, Cronenberg and their surrogate, Pattinson, give us the mirror and ask how human we really are, in a time when speed, connection and perfection are our holy trinity.
There is a frustrating irony, then, that over half of the movie takes place in the silent bubble that is Packer’s limo, as it slowly crawls through the city. An unreasonable variety of acts occurs in the car: Packer has sex, gets a prostate exam, watches a gruesome stabbing on live T.V. and, most of all, talks. He talks a lot. Every encounter with another human being — most cycle through his spacious limo — consists of pages of dialogue, most of it very literate and unnaturally refined. These dense conversations are justified because, again, Cronenberg revokes these characters’ full humanity in favor of propping them up to speak to larger truths. It does make the film very literary, rather than cinematic, since dialogue rules over image.
Cosmopolis does not excite with its effects or pacing, but impresses as a slick demonstration of how things can be kept interesting. Few directors can pull off staying in one location for multiple scenes — Hitchcock’s Rope and Lumet’s 12 Angry Men set the bar high in the ’50s, as did Danny Boyle, more recently, in 127 Hours. Cronenberg finds distinct and expressive approaches to every scene, composing striking frames with moody colors and detailed production design, courtesy of cinematographer Peter Suschitzky and designer Arvinder Grewal. As a doctor searches Packer’s, um, packer during the prostate exam, the shot plots Packer along the lower third of the screen, with a cool blue neon light along the ceiling. He is face-to-face with his sweaty adviser, Jane (Emily Hampshire), though the sequence only cuts back and forth to their individual perspectives without joining them in one frame. The two speak of sexual tension when there is, very purposefully, only an air of solitude.
Directing quirks like these complement the lines and plot twists, which confuse more than clarify. Packer’s financial consultant, Vija (Samantha Morton), muses for about 15 minutes in pure DeLillo fashion how “money has lost its narrative quality;” how people have “stopped thinking about eternity” and begun to focus on “measurable man-hours;” how “the future becomes insistent.” The philosophical monologues touch upon some heavy dilemmas and to the patient, the themes unravel themselves. Cronenberg lets his camera do the talking. Packer and Vija drive through a violent protest reminiscent of Occupy Wall Street, though the demonstrators here are dressed as rats. The two, ignoring the external bedlam, talk as protesters vandalize the limousine. Only when Packer witnesses a self-immolating man — through an excellent shot with Packer in the foreground and the martyr framed through the passing car window — does he start to the admire ideology behind this chaos. We are kept within Packer’s head, feeling what he feels, which up to this point is very little at all.
Only extreme measures like suicide penetrate Packer’s skin, so as he begins to make his own choices (besides his decision to get a haircut, he only starts exercising his free will an hour in), the film loses its sterile sheen and adapts to Packer’s reckless behavior. Packer loses his sunglasses and jacket, unbuttons his pressed shirt and starts to stick out in the world; he dares his mysterious stalker, Benno Levin (Paul Giamatti), to give him his best shot. Giamatti’s 15 minutes at the end is the film’s high point; it is the emotional release the prior 90 minutes desperately needed. Of course, Levin’s twitches and giggles classify him as insane. The physically warped and openly emotive Levin is the most human character, an embodiment of the “imperfect” Packer fears. “It’s women’s shoes, it’s all the names they have for shoes!” Levin shouts in a fit. It is a welcome, genuine non-sequitur and about the most concise criticism of today’s culture I can think of.
DeLillo is one of our era’s greatest, and most prescient writers — his 1997 masterwork Underworld foresaw much of the paranoia of a post-9/11 world. The Twin Towers, shrouded in mist and flanked by a distant, swooping hawk, grace the book’s now-disturbing cover. Cronenberg is similarly a legendary and prophetic filmmaker — his 1983 classic Videodrome indicted the media’s control over the mind. It is surprising to learn that Cosmopolis was written before social media, the Arab Spring or our ongoing recession. It examines our push for more: more money, more technology, more perfection. The film does so through a cold lens and muted emotions, the feel of which becomes strangely familiar as the story progresses. Any recommendation for this film requires a bold, loud disclaimer: Most will find the experience slow, pretentious and convoluted. It is all these things, yes. Do you actually think the mind of a 28-year-old billionaire is anything like yours?