After spending his past three films delving into real-world traumas, David Cronenberg takes a welcome leap back into the plasma pool with Cosmopolis, a Don DeLillo adaptation starring Robert "Team Edward" Pattinson. This film plumbs the depths of a damaged psyche in a way that Cronenberg hasn't since Spider, and it does so in a way that seems unnervingly relevant. Once again, Cronenberg, a master of adaptation, has taken an "unfilmable" novel (see also Crash, Naked Lunch) and made it his own, following a billionaire's crosstown journey through protests, funerals, conspiracies, and episodic appearances by the supporting cast ... to get a haircut.
The opening shot announces from the get-go that Cosmopolis will be a spiritual cousin to 1996's Crash, that merciless gaze into the sex dreams of a culture collapsing into isolationism. But this goes further into the void, and on a much more expansive scale. The violence and sexual compulsion of Crash was intimate, reserved for a one-on-one collision or a several-car pile-up. Cosmopolis violates you and your money without you even knowing it.
Cronenberg and his longtime cinematographer Peter Suschitzky (the degree of separation between The Empire Strikes Back and The Rocky Horror Picture Show) make the leap to digital filmmaking effortlessly, using its assorted grades of representation to delineate the realities within and without the limousine. Eric Packer (Pattinson), isolated in his stretch limo by a layer of cork, bulletproofing, a security staff, and his own inability to speak to people in a meaningful way, has enough money that he is simply deferred to. He's fawned over even when his curiosity, motivated by his blatant unease in his own skin, leads to the crumbling of lives, markets, assets and even society.
The director's bleak, bleak vision feels more like an encapsulation of the moment than anything he's made since 1999's eXistenZ (a peerless film on the subjects of video games and religious fundamentalism). Packer's isolation is a simple metaphor for economic supremacy, but it's also a form of containment — he's essentially a bubble boy roaming the streets in a portable ICU unit. He is incapable of perceiving any person he does not already transact with as anything other than an abstraction. Other people are just temporary vehicles for his money — a parasite that manipulates its host as surely as the mutating TV signal in Cronenberg's Videodrome (screening midnight Friday and Saturday at The Belcourt) or the libido-prodding bugs in his debut Shivers.
It may be impossible these days to feel sympathy for a multibillionaire, especially one whose insecurities and whims threaten to annihilate the economic structures of society. There was a time when heads of companies felt responsibility to and for their employees. That widening gulf, that corrosion of the employee concept over the years, leads us closer and closer to the cruel future that Packer's "head of theory" Vija Kinski (the stellar Samantha Morton, who steals almost the whole film) envisions — a shiny, sterile ecotopia that doesn't acknowledge the millions who must die for it to happen.
Does having billions of dollars preclude empathy? Does not giving a shit about others facilitate raking them in? As the embodiment of those questions, Pattinson is very good — good enough even to make the viewer see past his teenage-superego legacy. He is matched by remarkable supporting players in every role, with performance activist Mathieu Amalric, randy art dealer Juliette Binoche, and icy-blonde archetype Sarah Gadon scoring serious guest-star points.
A figure that recurs in Cronenberg's work is the renegade scientist — the genius/madman who discovers something (teleportation, a vaccination, Freudian psychoanalysis) that could either elevate or destroy humanity as a species. These characters may be flawed beings, but they're capable of discoveries that change the pivot of society. Packer is that renegade scientist here, recombining his cash into a roiling, amoral, seething agent with insatiable appetite. Only in Cosmopolis, his lab is the free market, and everyone is his rat.