“Prepare to be surprised” runs the poster copy for David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis over a moody shot of the film’s star, Robert Pattinson. Well, there’s the first surprise: Pattinson has until now been the preserve of Twilight devotees hung up on his depleted pout. They’re sure to be surprised in Cosmopolis when this dreamboat gazes vaguely into a woman’s eyes while a proctologist uses him as a glove-puppet. But the tag line is aimed more at admirers of Cronenberg who are sceptical about this teen idol. Any fears are misplaced: while R-Patz (as he is known) pushes himself up several gears, it is D-Crone (as he is not) who cruises on automatic.
Most of Cosmopolis is confined, as readers of Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel will know, to the inside of a white stretch limousine ferrying Eric Packer (Pattinson) across Manhattan to have a haircut. It’s a road movie of sorts, despite notching up only half a kilometre on the clock. A presidential visit has brought gridlock to the streets (how would you notice in New York?) but Eric insists on taking the car. Serving as a mobile office, doctor’s surgery, bedroom and boardroom, it also provides sanctuary from a stalker who has been issuing death threats. Eric is an obscenely wealthy assets manager barricaded from the disintegrating city by a bulletproof vehicle cork-lined to muffle the outside world. Eric’s hands pass over computer panels that give off a retro jukebox glow; he watches as excerpts from the fall of western civilisation are relayed to him on TV screens. “Complex,” he purrs at a televised assassination, as though admiring a dish prepared from esoteric ingredients.
Soon the chaos is playing out on the other side of Eric’s tinted glass, where anti-capitalist demonstrators rampage while brandishing dead rats. (A line from Zbigniew Herbert’s poem “Report from the Besieged City” –“a rat became the unit of currency” – prefaces novel and film.) Eric ventures occasionally into the hubbub to confer with his new wife, Elise (Sarah Gadon). They first liaise in the back of a cab into which Eric has slipped from his adjacent limo in one elegant movement like a fan-dodging Beatle in A Hard Day’s Night.
Mostly he receives visitors like a spoilt king; the film is careful never to show these guests arriving or leaving, so that they register to us as human non-sequiturs or baffling pop-ups along the sleek superhighway of Eric’s existence. Among them is Didi (Juliette Binoche), an art dealer who breaks it to Eric that the Rothko Chapel is not for sale. “It belongs to the world,” she explains gently. “It’s mine if I buy it,” he shoots back. The line is typical in distilling perfectly the capitalist mindset, while ringing false as something that anyone would say – or at least anyone not intent on personifying a discredited economic philosophy.
Perhaps we should expect nothing more from a film set inside a slow-moving metaphor. If the limo idea ever seemed smart, it doesn’t now – and not only because Cronenberg has already explored the ultimate human/car symbiosis in his film of J G Ballard’s Crash. The flaws lie more with the chassis DeLillo has supplied than with the director’s spray job: everything is pared back to the level of the symbolic, from location and dialogue through to Eric’s expedition to the homely barbershop that will reconnect him with his youth. There’s nowhere cinematically for Cronenberg to go and nothing for the actors to play other than the author’s disaffectedness.
In its favour, the film has Pattinson. Part of his success in evoking Eric’s contradictions is down to physiognomy: the upper half of his face, where his oversized eyes bulge from beneath a curved shell of forehead, seems engorged by cerebral activity, while his boxy jaw juts forward a fraction like Ted Hughes’s Iron Man. He brings hunger but also delicacy. Asking his driver where all the limousines go at night, he’s like Holden Caulfield fretting about Central Park’s ducks when the lake freezes over. It’s human experience that Eric finds hard to process. His sensibility is so rooted in abstraction, he barely notices the demonstrators vandalising his limo; he can’t see that they have turned it into a makeshift Rothko, spray-painting a red-and-black fuzz across its windows.
Cosmopolis is not the first Cronenberg film to question the enfeebling progress of technology, or to use a subversive band of renegades to provide dramatic tension – Videodrome and eXistenZ did both a good deal less laboriously. What is new, and regrettable, is the air of detachment expressed in a reliance on state-of-the-nation epigrams (“I feel located totally nowhere”; “Money has lost its narrative”) over argument. Though fortuitous in gaining topicality from the Occupy movement, the film’s vague prophecies of doom are at best superficial. Its characters may be on the road, but Cosmopolis is rooted in the pedestrian.