Comfortably numb inside his state-of-the-art limousine, billionaire asset-manager Eric Packer (Pattinson) negotiates a gridlocked and increasingly volatile Manhattan intent on getting a haircut he doesnt need. It could be the last journey he ever makes.
David Cronenberg hasn’t been this Cronenbergian in a while: so icy-calm, intellectual and bleakly funny. Not that he hasn’t been making decent films, challenging his own orthodoxy with sleek Euro-thrillers and Keira Knightley getting spanked. It’s just that Cosmopolis recalls the clinical realms of body-shock with which he made his name; only this is a creeping horror for our times where the disease is capitalism.
Don DeLillo’s novel is a good fit for cinema’s Doctor Strange, the esteemed American author observes human foibles with scientific scrutiny and elegant detachment. His book, published in 2003, was a frighteningly prescient critique of a meltdown to come: a study in extreme close-up of this master of the universe, cocooned in data, purring through the steel canyons of Manhattan, quietly engineering his own downfall.
Cronenberg’s approach corresponds to the quiet hum of this aerodynamic limo “cork-lined against street noise” gliding through a city both strange and familiar. His film is as slick as mercury, contemporary but with the aura of science-fiction, calmly summoning an existential dread. Here are the taut, super-cool urban paranoias of Davids Fincher and Lynch, Michael Mann, Christopher Nolan and Nicolas Winding Refn, but atomised by the unmistakable brainwaves of the wizard who gave us Crash and Videodrome.
Of course it serves as a refraction of our weird and perilous times, where danger isn’t tactile or even visible, but lurks ghost-like in the luminous glow of “cyber capital”. “Money,” we are informed by Samantha Morton as Packer’s Chief Of Theory, “has lost its narrative”. Much of the dialogue takes the form of such portentous and borderline incomprehensible reports on the parlous state of human endeavour. That civilisation is being run and wrecked by Packer-like automatons. Cronenberg’s trick is to maintain a perfect equilibrium between barking-mad pretension and towering relevance. The film plays partly as caustic joke at its own importance. It could just be a horror movie.
Structured as a procession of Alice-like encounters, flunkies and whizz-kids climb aboard to report on gazillion-dollar blips and tremors of microscopic analysis. Packer stops on three occasions to converse with his glacial wife (Sarah Gadon), has sex twice, learns of a “credible threat” to his life, and is targeted by Mathieu Amalric’s commando pie-flinger. But he remains utterly disconnected, a photo negative of Taxi Driver — the disenfranchised New Yorker as untouchable with “money unbeknownst” reaching critical mass.
Cronenberg at his most remote can be an acquired taste. As in Cannes, there will be those flummoxed by the lack of action, the lugubrious pace, the virulent ambiguity. What is it that Packer seeks? Escape from the ceaseless flow of information? Stimulation? Proof of life? A soul? Orgasms are had, food is consumed, violence meted out, prostates probed (in a squelchy self-homage to the more biologically minded Cronenberg) but nothing breaks through — he is the ultimate expression of the void at the top of the world. It’s also too long in the tail: the final encounter borders on the inanely surreal, a babbling weirdo too far (although it could be read as Packer confronting a perverse manifestation of himself).
Frustrations but not catastrophes, and final words must go to Robert Pattinson’s terrific performance. A mesmerising, magnetic anti-presence, the perfect redeployment of the pin-up cheekbones and blue-grey eyes of the R-Pattz myth. As the camera gazes deeper into his frozen face, we detect a concerto of tiny twitches, lurking smirks and trickles of terrifying sweat — micro-fluctuations in the sanity of a man who has everything.
A part hypnotic, part profound, part send-up meditation on our financially imploding time.