Film Review – Cosmopolis

Cosmopolis Movie PosterIn the world of literary author Don DeLillo practically everything is metaphor. His stories are filled with symbolic messages and societal commentary. Cosmopolis is perhaps DeLillo’s most distilled novel of societal and economic commentary. It is lean, concise, and full of the kind of technically clever dialogue that utilizes the medium of literature to its fullest. In writer/director David Cronenberg’s faithful adaptation, language and its syntax is just as important on screen as it is delivered by DeLillo on page. Cronenberg even goes as far to keep a good amount of DeLillo’s words intact. Which is both impressive and a slight bit disarming, as conversations meant for the written word are not always as effective when spoken aloud . It is rare for a movie adapted from a book to stay this close to its source material, for good reason: what works on the written page doesn’t always work on the silver screen.

The story concerns a 28-year-old assets manager named Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) who decides one morning that he wants a haircut from a particular barber on the other side of Manhattan from where he lives. The problem is there’s a funeral for a pop-star, a presidential visit, and a major protest underway. As Packer’s chief of security tells him, “it’s the kind of traffic that speaks in quarter inches.” Packer doesn’t care, he wants a haircut, and what Packer wants, Packer gets. So into his custom-designed limo they go, complete with high-tech video screens and specially designed seats, to inch across Manhattan towards a barber who will cut Packer’s hair,¬†amidst ever-growing chaos. Along the way, Packer is gambling his company’s future against the value of the yen, while people go in and out of his custom limo (including Packer himself). Violence, sex, and a whole lot of conversations take place. All the while, the limo continues slowly making its way to the destination.

Here, Cronenberg has essentially crafted a literal visual interpretation of the novel. However, instead of the heightened visual imagery of physical abstractions and body grotesquery normally on display in his films, we are given sharp photographic displays of the kind of grotesquery fortune affords. Namely the limousine, a moving media and information dump, designed to provide Packer with what he feels he needs at any moment. The limo’s interior is presented as a cold, sterile, futuristic environment. It is detached, just like the people who inhabit it. Conversations come fast and direct, almost with no emotion behind them, yet the things being said are a philosophic summation of theories that give pause to either their credibility or bring to light the pretentious frailty of the ideas being presented.

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Packer is clearly a man in love with power; he flaunts his higher way of thinking through unanswerable questions that his employees recognize and refuse to accommodate. He continues to seek out sexual experiences with different partners even after being married to a woman of incredible wealth. Packer is not simply a person, but a representation of ideas in microcosm: he is the summation of all the American dream promises to the newly minted yuppies of the new millennium. Packer sees his company’s gamble against the yen as merely a concern for his personal wealth, but something that significant will surely have greater effects on the economy when he loses, which all signs point to as inevitable.

The quest for Packer to get a haircut is a post-modern Odyssey that tells more than it shows. Not that there isn’t plenty to see here: there’s graphic sex, several scenes of violence, and a lot of beautiful people. The plot is mostly reliant on the conversations that take place, rather than the actions that transpire. One scene carries the weight of one philosophical idea, while the next covers something different; the topics range from nature vs. technology, to questions of economic stability and humanity’s place in a consumerist culture. As the limo progresses across town, the chaos that surrounds it grows. Everything leads to conjecture and more conversations that either address what is occurring or cleverly try to dance around it.

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What will probably be most remembered about the film is its star, and his turn from the safe leading male roles his audience has come to love him for. Pattinson is no sparkling vampire in this film. He is however, disconnected, which seems to be a theme he returns to. Cronenberg draws from Pattinson an uneasy, restless person, whose quest seems to be a downward spiral. This really is the Pattinson show in the end. All other characters are merely tools for delivering contrary ideas to what Packer represents. They are handled well by the actors who play them, one of the most notable being Samantha Morton as Vija Kinski, whose chilling monologue presents an intriguing contrast to the anarchistic violence that is taking place outside the limo while she’s speaking.

The music, which is a collaboration between the band Metric and Cronenberg’s longtime collaborator Howard Shore, is perfectly atmospheric for the new, yet dissident environment the film is creating. While the dialogue may not work being directly taken from the book and delivered by actors on camera, it does present a specific feel, and in so doing helps create a diegesis that is unique to the film. That in itself is something a lot of modern films are lacking.

Final Grade: B+


Benjamin Nason is a writer, film-maker and critic from the Pacific Northwest, where he lives with his cat Lulu.

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