An eerily precise match of filmmaker and material, “Cosmopolis” probes the soullessness of the 1% with the cinematic equivalent of latex gloves. Applying his icy intelligence to Don DeLillo’s prescient 2003 novel, David Cronenberg turns a young Wall Street titan’s daylong limo ride into a coolly corrosive allegory for an era of technological dependency, financial failure and pervasive paranoia, though the dialogue-heavy manner in which it engages these concepts remains distancing and somewhat impenetrable by design. While commercial reach will be limited to the more adventurous end of the specialty market, Robert Pattinson’s excellent performance reps an indispensable asset.
The first film based on a DeLillo tome, as well as Cronenberg’s first feature-length script since 1999’s “eXistenZ,” “Cosmopolis” is an uncommonly straightforward adaptation by a filmmaker who, in movies like “Naked Lunch” and “Spider,” found an inventive visual syntax for the psychological and intellectual conceits at work. Working here with a spare, episodic narrative and dialogue that teems with heady ideas, Cronenberg adopts a direct, scene-by-scene approach that crucially nails the novel’s tone of archly stylized pessimism.
Already an unholy pillar of capitalism at 28, handsome, sharply attired Eric Packer (Pattinson) decides he needs a haircut and sets out on the crosstown journey in his white stretch limousine, the interior of which is equipped with screens and gizmos that seem far more futuristic than the cold, gray Manhattan outside its windows. A presidential motorcade has slowed traffic to a crawl, giving this billionaire assets manager plenty of time for in-limo consultations with his chief of technology (Jay Baruchel) and currency analyst (Philip Nozuka), who warns his Eric he’s borrowing too aggressively against the Chinese yuan.
Escorted by security head Torval (Kevin Durand), Eric need not leave these leather-seated confines to have vigorous sex with a g.f. (Juliette Binoche), or to receive a lengthy prostate exam while chatting away with his finance chief (Emily Hampshire). Occasionally he’ll get out for bewilderingly frequent meetings with his demure, distant wife, Elise (Sarah Gadon). As day darkens into night, the limo moves past a rap star’s funeral procession and into a throng of protesters wielding fake rats as their monetary mascot.
Until the guns come out in the final act, each of Eric’s one-on-one meetings has essentially been a verbal sparring match. The initial discussions of technological and financial vulnerability give way to discussions of more abstract concepts: the primitive nature of sexual desire; the expendability of the masses for the sake of a visionary idea; the dizzying speed of human progress and the inability of language to keep up with it. Yet language is precisely what “Cosmopolis” has in abundance as it confronts the viewer with reams and reams of bluntly articulated, hyper-intellectual discourse.
Cronenberg lets DeLillo’s ideas speak for themselves but accents them visually, particularly in the way the camera plays up Eric’s monstrous callousness and arrogance by emphasizing his physical distance from the hovering crowds. Rarely venturing outside its protagonist’s ivory-tower-on-wheels, the film generates a mood of unsettling intimacy and isolation despite the chaotic swirl of human activity in the streets; it’s mass misery observed through a glass darkly — quite literally in the case of the limo’s tinted windows.
Charges that this study in emptiness and alienation itself feels empty and alienating are at once accurate and a bit beside the point, and perhaps the clearest confirmation that Cronenberg has done justice to his subject. In presenting such a close-up view of Eric’s inner sanctum, the film invites the viewer’s scorn and fascination simultaneously; to that end, the helmer has an ideal collaborator in Pattinson, whose callow yet charismatic features take on a seductively reptilian quality here. It’s the actor’s strongest screen performance and certainly his most substantial.
The other thesps make only fleeting impressions, though Samantha Morton gets some mileage out of her one-scene turn as Eric’s articulate chief of theory, and Mathieu Amalric gets a brief, hilarious appearance as a “pastry assassin” whose antics bring Rupert Murdoch’s 2011 pie-thrower incident to mind. In a role effectively tightened from the book, Paul Giamatti is superb as a sad sack who represents Eric’s antithesis in every particular.
Craft contributions are at the director’s high standard, from the crisp rhythms of Ronald Sanders’ editing and the cold, slightly metallic cast of Peter Suschitzky’s lensing to the unostentatious detail of Arv Greywal’s production design. Howard Shore supplies one of his subtler scores, at times registering as little more than an ominous background rumble.