In Chris Rodley’s excellent book, Cronenberg On Cronenberg, when pressed about his decision to helm the Geffen Pictures production of David Hwang’s play, M.Butterfly (1993), the director confesses: “If I [continue to make films] the way I’ve been doing it – independent production, difficult subject, writing the script myself – I know it’s going to take three years. Financially and creatively I just can’t take that.”
Seemingly refreshed by this experience, Cronenberg followed M.Butterfly with his controversial adaptation of JG Ballard’s novel, Crash (1996), while he straddled the new millennium with the satiric sci-fi thriller eXistenZ (1999) and his haunting adaptation of Patrick McGrath’s novel, Spider (2002).
However, as the film market changed, Cronenberg found funding for his own, self-produced projects becoming increasingly difficult and once more this proud ‘auteur’ was faced with the prospect of directing other people’s scripts.
Ironically, beginning with 2005’s Oscar nominated A History Of Violence and continuing with Eastern Promises (2007) and A Dangerous Method (2011), this trio of pictures would deliver the most consistently successful box-office returns of Cronenberg’s career.
But nothing lasts forever, and with this adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel, Cosmopolis, there’s a definite sense of the 69 year-old Canadian creatively clearing the decks and taking a firmer grip of the material at hand. Not only penning his first script since eXistenZ, but also breaking his fruitful seven-year collaboration with actor Viggo Mortensen, Cosmopolis finds Cronenberg embracing subject matter that’s decidedly less mainstream.
An extremely faithful cinematic translation of DeLillo’s book, Cosmopolis follows the story of 28-year-old billionaire asset manager Eric Packer (Pattinson) as he takes a trip across Manhattan inside his armoured, high-tech stretch limo to get a haircut.
But this isn’t just any ordinary day in New York. First off, traffic has been diverted thanks to the visit of the US President, while the funeral of a recently deceased rapper and a particularly brutal anti-capitalist protest only add to the general feeling of chaos on the streets.
However, chief among Eric’s problems are the vexing issue of the Chinese Yuan, which just might destroy his fortune before the day is out, and the small matter of a ‘credible threat’ to Packer’s life, an ex-employee who is stalking the billionaire with murder on his mind.
Closely following the structure of DeLillo’s novel, but also pushing its metaphors even further, Cosmopolis is essentially a series of dialogues between Packer and an almost picaresque cast of characters that appear inside the cocooned environs of his limo as it weaves its way through Manhattan.
Only breaking this cocooned world for brief stops to meet his new bride, Elise (Sarah Gadon), Packer’s world inside the limo is a surreal, dislocated and airless place. With its sci-fi inflected interior it serves as office, medical examination room and site of infidelity all at once, while the world outside – seen through the armour plated windows – is rendered in a manner that evokes both a waking dream and Cronenberg’s own eXistenZ and Naked Lunch.
The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, with particular praise going to Juliette Binoche, Jay Baruchel, Samantha Morton and Paul Giamatti, who all make a strong impression opposite Pattinson.
As for the Twilight star, who has to shoulder being in literally every scene of the movie, it will no doubt upset some people to hear that he acquits himself more than admirably. Managing the tricky task of being both simultaneously aloof and vulnerable, Pattinson mines the ambiguity in Packer’s character for all it’s worth.
Slowly stripped of both Packer’s literal and metaphorical armour as the film progresses, the quality of Pattinson’s performance is brought into sharp focus in the film’s climactic scene. Going toe-to-toe with the superb Giamatti in an extended face-off, Pattinson more than holds his own with the veteran actor.
However, despite the many pleasures it offers, Cosmopolis isn’t a film without flaws. If your criticism of A Dangerous Method was that it was ‘too talky’, I’m afraid to report that this film suffers from a similar ‘problem’.
In fact, at times Cosmopolis makes Method seem like an advert for both non-verbal communication and big picture storytelling, especially with the bulk of the story set within the static environment of Packer’s limo.
The staginess of the film aside, the dialogue in the movie is sometimes problematic. Virtually a word for word transcription of the dialogue from DeLillo’s book, most of the time it works fine, but on occasion it can sound stilted, stagey and more than a little tin-eared.
Despite these stumbles, it’s Cronenberg’s fidelity to the novel that ultimately helps place the film within its correct context, which is: it’s very much a work inspired and influenced by the movies made by directors such as Godard, Fellini, Truffaut and Antonioni in the mid-to-late-1960s. Theirs was a cinema of ideas, abstractions and metaphor that was less concerned with plot or naturalistic dialogue and instead accentuated the value of framing, performance, scene composition and the mood that the film evoked.
Naturally, if you find this approach to cinema unengaging, or you’re pining for a version of Cronenberg who plays closer to his exploitation roots, then Cosmopolis probably won’t be for you.
However, if you’re interested in seeing a top-of-the-line director working with great actors and provocative material in a form that English language cinema seems to have all but turned its back on, then Cronenberg’s latest is definitely worth both your time and money.