David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel is cryptic, dystopian, and mildly futuristic — probably not a surprise to viewers or readers of either man’s work. Most of the movie takes place in a limousine, cork-lined to try to keep out the sounds of the street, where class warfare rages.
The film opens on a quote from a poem about the rat becoming the unit of currency. That idea is brought up later in conversations and as iconography in the signs of street protesters. The rich would be those with all the rats. Money would be vermin. Wealth would be squalor. It’s not literally true, but in the world of Cosmopolis, it seems to be spiritually true.
R for some strong sexual content including graphic nudity, violence and language
Robert Pattinson plays Eric Packer, a 28-year-old cybercapitalist, spending most of the movie trying to get across town to get a haircut. His doctor checks him in the limo every day. The limo is also where he takes meetings with his Chief Theory Officer (Samantha Morton), and his technician friend (Jay Baruchel) from school days. The limo is his fortress, guarded by personal bodyguards (including Kevin Durand, looking uncannily like a young Christopher Walken) who walk alongside.
His lover and art dealer Didi (Juliette Binoche) says that a Rothko is available. Eric would like to buy the whole Rothko Chapel, which he says would fit inside his apartment. “The Rothko chapel belongs to the world,” she says. “Not if I buy it,” he says.
His love of minimalism extends to music. His apartment has two elevators, he says, one of which is programmed to play the piano pieces of Eric Satie and travel at one-quarter speed.
Eric is married, but he never sleeps with his wife; he only ever eats with her.
Past and Future
Eric’s quest for a haircut is a journey both into the past and the future. The barber has cut his hair ever since he was a boy, and travelling backwards lets us see how he got where he is today. The fatalistic march toward the future feels like a convicted prisoner marching toward the gallows. His future holds a gripping confrontation in an ugly apartment with Benno (Paul Giamatti), an engineer who created the technology that made Eric so wealthy in the first place. Benno’s life goal is to kill Eric, less as a matter of personal revenge than philosophical duty. Somehow Eric is drawn to the confrontation as if it is truly his fate.
The relationship between programmer and CEO should resonate with this generation. The confrontation is a dark Cronenberg-esque version of Dilbert meeting his pointy-haired boss. Giamatti had the insight to find patterns in the universe and the know-how to codify them into rules a machine could understand. The pattern is so good that it actually predicts the future, including, possibly, their confrontation. Eric, presumably, had the negotiating skills and the rolodex to exploit that technology for profit — not from making happy customers, but from exploiting loopholes in the market to skim money out of the system.
Poetry, Paranoia, or Plot
Cosmopolis is full of paranoia and tension, but it’s not a movie you can watch and truly understand. There isn’t much of a plot. Characters behave according to cause and effect, but not in the way you or I would. Characters speak past each other in bursts of interesting dialogue. The words are often poetic and sometimes insightful, but they don’t sound like real conversations between normal people.
Those looking for an “aha” moment — an explanation that unravels the mystery of the movie — might be satisfied with a revelation from Giamatti’s engineer about Eric’s fatal flaw. But the world of the film is too complex to be wrapped up by a single fatal flaw, and if you think you “got” it, you probably didn’t.
For many people, that would make Cosmopolis a frustrating movie. But if you can live with ambiguity and you like your Cronenberg thick and chewy, Cosmopolis is a rich, dense, and satisfying course.