Cosmopolis must surely rank as one of the slowest road movies ever made. It follows the gradual crawl of a white limousine as it moves from one side of Manhattan to the other. Inside is Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), a staggeringly young billionaire who simply wants a haircut. Packer is the pinnacle of the ultra-rich 1%, one of Tom Wolfe’s self-styled “masters of the universe”, in this case, a portable, self-contained universe. We see Packer’s self-engineered financial and personal downfall as he is ferried closer to a climactic confrontation with Unabomber-like former employee Benno Levin (Paul Giamatti), the nadir of the other 99%.
In terms of its place in the oeuvre of director David Cronenberg, the easiest and most obvious connections would be with his other automotive nightmare,Crash. Both films create a glacial, hermetically sealed world, but whereas Crash allows us to peer in at this world through the glass, Cosmopolis places us inside it. The interior of Packer’s limo, bathed in the blue light of the screens bringing him news of his financial destruction, is scarily silent. Whenever the door is opened, the sounds of the city are almost deafening. His succession of advisers and analysts all speak in stilted sentences, Samantha Morton in particular being especially blank and angular as Packer’s personal theoretician.
Pattinson, being on screen for almost every second of the movie, as the cold and vulpine Packer, undoubtedly has the hardest job, but he adds further proof of Cronenberg’s canny eye for casting. He plays Packer as someone who has done too much, too young, and has nothing left but the thrill of losing it all. When we first see him holding court in his limo, he is dwarfed by his throne-like chair. And when he exits the limo to confront an attacker, with a gun tucked into his trousers, he does so with the cocky strut of a schoolboy trying to act harder than he feels. It’s a perfect performance that proves there is more to Pattinson than an army of screaming and swooning fans.
Paul Giamatti, on the other hand, has nothing to prove. The final 20 minutes of the movie, where Packer finally exits his universe and enters that of Giamatti’s balding, dishevelled Levin, are the real triumph of Cosmopolis. The likes of Levin, those who have fallen through the cracks, have no place in Packer’s world; “Do you think people like me can’t happen?” Levin demands. He’s the abandoned chickens of rampant capitalism come home to roost, desperation in his eyes and a gun in his hand. It’s a gold standard of naturalistic scenery chewing, and armed with Cronenberg’s style and Don DeLillo’s words, sparks begin to fly.
Those looking for grand, damning statements on the evils of capitalism may not find Cosmopolis entirely satisfactory. Cronenberg seems more interested in showing modern society stretched to breaking point, threatening to snap at any moment. It’s an incredibly easy film to admire, and an extremely hard one to love. It’s certainly not a film for everyone, but then there is no fun in films that aim to be for everyone, and by extension are for no one. Cosmopolis is a film for some, and on those grounds it is almost flawless.
Watch the trailer: