David Cronenberg’s latest movie, Cosmopolis, is a cerebral, thoughtful movie. The film, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and is scheduled to have its Canadian premiere in June, is a post-modern parable about life in today’s data-driven, nonstop, capitalist economy, where “time is a corporate asset . . . [and] the present is harder to find.” This is, at its heart, a character study. Cosmopolis focuses on 28-year-old billionaire asset manager Eric Packer, played by Robert Pattinson, as he tries to get across Manhattan in his stretch limo to get a haircut. During his cross-town venture, he encounters an array of characters—from his business and personal life, as well as an increasingly chaotic outer world—that reveal a portrait of the modern world, etched on a harsh, unforgiving mirror.
Based on the novel of the same name by Don DeLillo, with not much changed from the sharply paced dialogue of the book, the movie looks at the ways capitalism has seeped into every aspect of culture and society, and what the ultimate effect of capitalism’s influence might be. The film opens with an epigraph from Zbigniew Herbert’s poem, “Report from the Besieged City”: “a rat became the unit of currency.” The motif of the rat continues throughout the film—even Packer’s name seems derived from the term “pack rat” and a rioting anarchist group uses dead rats as a symbol of their discontent.
As Bram Stoker’s Dracula represented the bourgeoisie figuratively sucking the life out of the plebeians, Eric Packer (the young disconnected billionaire CEO of Packer Capital), may be the human face of the faceless corporations whose actions affect billions around the globe, while they remain disaffected. A billboard-sized ad for a luxury car can be spotted outside the window of Packer’s limo as they cruise through a downtown riot. The wording says simply, “Snap Out of It,” as if to jolt Pattinson’s disconnected billionaire self out of his unsettling malaise in the face of real-world dangers beyond the blips and tweaks on a computer screen—as much as those blips represent entire economies crashing and fortunes lost and won.
After a slightly jarring sex scene with Juliette Binoche (playing Didi Fancher, a woman who gives the impression she was once on top of the money game but somehow fell away), her character asks Packer, “What does it mean to spend money?” By way of response, a few lines of dialogue later, he says he wants to purchase the Rothko chapel . . . to put in his apartment. “The Rothko chapel belongs to the world,” she tells him in disbelief. His response is, “It’s mine if I buy it.”
Herein lies the key to Packer’s narrowly focused mindset. He thinks with the mentality of pure, distilled capitalism: everything is for sale.
But as the narrative unfolds—one might even say unravels—Packer is increasingly compelled to seek out more than what his insular world offers. Encapsulated in his stretch limousine, he does not waver from his objective—“We are going to get a haircut”—despite the increasing difficulty of doing so. The very idea of a fleet of stretch limousines navigating the narrow, traffic-clogged streets of Manhattan is laughable. Yet as a status symbol of the new royalty, they are ubiquitous in the film. As a result, everyone comes to him; Packer’s limo becomes his office, his medical examination room (he has daily medical check-ups), and the site of his sexual encounters.
But even as a mounting list of obstacles (including a presidential visit, a celebrity funeral, and a riot) try to prevent him from reaching his goal of getting a haircut (his chief of security, Torval, played with steely-eyed grimness by Kevin Durand, continually reminds him that he could simply have the barber come to him), a series of encounters with his new yet unflappably distant wife Elise (Sarah Gadon) draw him out further into the world. The first time, he spots Elise as her taxi draws up beside his limo. The second time, he insists on their having lunch at a nearby diner. Then he insists on her meeting him for dinner after circumventing her outside a theatre house. Each time she comments on an accessory or piece of clothing he has lost since the last encounter—his dark glasses, his tie, his jacket.
This is almost a visual key that the more his layers are stripped away, the more the audience is getting to the heart of who the real Eric Packer is. Their relationship is almost an inversion of his relationship with the world outside: He keeps trying to penetrate her shield, and she remains unreachable.
“I’m trying to make contact in the most ordinary way,” he says to her after she once again declines to have sex with him. She presents a seeming challenge; someone even more closed off from the world than he is.
Meanwhile, out in the real world, there is someone who wants Packer dead, and despite the latter’s obsession with security, Packer seems to be getting closer to death with every moment.
The moral of this tale, if it truly has one, is this: with the world speeding up around us, and society poised at the intersection of wealth, technology, and humanity, what is the true cost of life . . . and death?
Featuring a stellar cast of characters with strong, compelling performances, including Paul Giamatti, Juliette Binoche, Jay Baruchel, and Samantha Morton, Cosmopolis bills itself as “the first film about our new millennium.” All the ingredients are there: sex, power, violence, and the sheen of unimaginable wealth, as experienced by the first generation of billionaires under 30. With Cosmopolis, what began as something simple—a trip to the barber—turns into a Homeric odyssey. And this is the canvas on which a similar theme of self-reflection is played out on an equally epic scale. This is mythology for the modern world, the philosophy of a world drifting on a sea of electrons and digits, where time is measured by the septillionth of a second, and life can become so insulated against reality that it takes a return to the most base of human experiences—sex, blood, death—in order to break through and feel something.
“I’m looking for more,” Packer says at one point. “Show me something I don’t know.”
With Cosmopolis, Cronenberg is showing us something we do know. And it’s a chilling sight to behold.
Click here to read my interview with actor Kevin Durand and his experience on Cosmopolis.