For some, the vapid Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and the interminably dull Margin Call were fulfilling cinematic responses to the financial angst of the post-recession era. I’ll take Cosmopolis, from director David Cronenberg.
Adapted from Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel, Cosmopolis follows 28-year-old investment titan Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) through a particularly bumpy business day. Set mostly in his high-tech limousine as it winds its way through New York City traffic, the movie largely consists of Packer’s face-to-face meetings with various advisors, a doctor, his security personnel and his new wife, all while a bad deal involving the Chinese yuan threatens to dismantle his fortune.
Cosmopolis doesn’t exactly provide any clarity in regards to how high-flying, high finance led to the 2008 economic crash, yet it captures – better than any movie yet – the Icarus-like ambition that was a part of it, as well as the common-man anguish that still lingers. This is a spiritual picture of what went down, with attributes such as greed and amorality and hopelessness taking the forms of the various characters. In its surreal refracting of contemporary nuttiness – the way our current reality is punctuated with bursts of heightened absurdity – the movie echoes nothing less than Richard Kelly’s kamikaze-like Southland Tales (minus the musical numbers, of course).
To be fair, Cosmopolis is a bit more focused than that. The center of this particular universe is Pattinson’s Packer. (The center of his universe appears to be the Dr. Evilish chair at the rear of the limo, from which he both monitors world markets and has sex.) Pattinson is very good: clipped, still, yet always a threat. Indeed, he’s more of a pained killer here than in the Twilight films. The quick, ideologically dominated dialogue scenes are the heart of the film – “All wealth has become wealth for its own sake,” goes one bon mot – and Pattinson easily matches verbal wits with everyone from Juliette Binoche to Samantha Morton to Jay Baruchel.
The movie features a bit of action of the more traditional kind, especially when an anti-capitalism riot erupts in the streets and Packer’s limo is vandalized by protesters. Packer barely notices, and pays little attention when his bodyguard (Kevin Durand) warns of an “imminent threat” – a specific person intent on doing him harm. In the tense climax, that person appears in the form of Paul Giamatti, playing a former employee crippled by professional failure and social phobia. Giamatti is a marvel – trying to explain why he can’t function in society, he says that “it’s all the names they have for shoes” – yet Pattinson, again, more than keeps pace. As the actors spar, we’re watching an ideological battle of wills, as if Goldman Sachs is squaring off against Occupy Wall Street.
Where is Cronenberg in all this? In many ways, Cosmopolis is a return to form. In comparison to his most recent work – A Dangerous Method especially, but also Eastern Promises and A History of Violence – Cosmopolis deals more with the primal, bodily concerns that have defined much of Cronenberg’s career. (Case in point, Packer’s in-transit prostate exam.) This time, however, such bodily invasions are not only reflective of a psychological state, but of a socioeconomic one as well. Never mind the body – this is corporate rot that Cosmopolis captures.