Cosmopolis is mostly about the journey, not the destination. In adapting Don LeLillo’s once-ridiculed but now uncannily prescient 2003 novel, director David Cronenberg has kept the premise intact: A 28-year-old billionaire, Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), takes a limo ride across New York City in search of a haircut. The president happens to be in town that day, so traffic is snarled even more than usual.
Inside the enormous, bulletproof vehicle, Eric keeps an eye on his fortunes via digital monitors and devices (they look too sleek and futuristic to call them computers). He gets visitors, as if the limo were an office, from his financial advisors, tech-support staff, even his doctor, who performs a prostate exam. Occasionally, he gets out of the car, like to have a meal with his wife (Sarah Dagon), who he barely knows. Mostly, though, he stays inside his vessel as it sails slowly across the city, the masses kept at bay. Life outside is white noise. On the streets, violent demonstrations began to erupt. Eric’s bodyguard (Kevin Durand) tells him someone has made a credible death threat.
A lot happens in Cosmopolis, but the movie usually feels like it’s standing still — a procession of characters saying things we don’t understand (the jargon-heavy dialogue is all taken from the book) while Eric sits there impassively, like a bored king inside his chamber, tracking the rise and fall of the yuan, in which he has invested heavily. His vast fortune is at stake, but even the possibility of losing everything doesn’t faze him.
What’s eating Eric Packer, and why should we care? These are the wrong questions to ask of Cosmopolis, which is most certainly one of Cronenberg’s “weird” movies, told in unreliable first-person (Crash, Naked Lunch, Spider, eXistenZ) instead of his more accessible, popular pictures (The Fly, A History of Violence, Eastern Promises.) Is there any other esteemed director who would dare make such an aggressively divisive film at this stage of his career? Cronenberg is 69, but he’s still interested in exploring and experimenting with his medium. Every shot in Cosmopolis is precise, every edit exact. The score by Howard Shore, a frequent Cronenberg collaborator, sounds like airbrushed metal and ostentation, but with a coiled threat of menace.
Cosmopolis may be a cerebral mood piece, but it is loaded with strong performances that connect on an emotional level. Samantha Morton does wonders with an enormous monologue warning Eric about the financial icebergs toward which he’s floating: You can’t make sense of anything she’s saying, but you can’t help be transfixed by her. Juliette Binoche pops up for a quick, sweaty cameo as Eric’s art dealer and friend with benefits. Paul Giamatti is a bitter man whose place in society was deemed obsolete by Eric’s brave new world but who now has nothing to do: He’s been relegated to the junk heap, and he’s not happy.
But the movie wouldn’t work without Pattinson, who is in every scene and holds the film together with his portrayal of a magnetic tycoon rotting on the inside — a disillusioned man who, having amassed everything he could possibly want, asks if that’s all there is. This is just one possible reading of Cosmopolis: Viewers with the stamina to make it to the end (discipline is required) may have differing interpretations of the final scene, which is often been true of Cronenberg’s best movies. DeLillo’s book, inspired by the dotcom bubble burst, was critical of how online entrepreneurs had reduced the power of money to an abstract commodity (“What does it mean to spend money? A dollar. A million.”)
Cronenberg’s film replaces that subtext with the more recent economic crisis. The protesters outside Eric’s limo, who fling dead rats and deface his gleaming white car — an obscene symbol of wealth — today seem like stand-ins for the occupy movement. But to interpret the movie as a social-economic statement is reductive. This is an artful, challenging movie, rigorously structured and emotionally detached, that entrances you on a subliminal level. Cosmopolis isn’t for everyone. But if it grabs you, prepare for it to stick in your head for days.
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Paul Giamatti, Kevin Durand, Juliette Binoche, Samantha Morton, Sarah Gadon, Mathieu Almaric, Jay Baruchel.
Writer-director: David Cronenberg. Based on the novel by Don DeLillo.
Producers: Paulo Branco, Martin Katz.
An Entertainment One Studios release. Running time: 108 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual situations, nudity, brief bloody violence, adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: Miami Beach Cinematheque.