You let a fine machine degrade in public,” a character tells Eric Packer, a baby-faced billionaire, in David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis. “That’s a scandal.” The machine in question is a snow-white limousine whose length makes “stretch” seem like an understatement, in which Packer has been riding through New York despite the streets having exploded into violence. Rioters, out protesting the inequality of a society that allows young, sociopathic money men like Eric Packer to become “berserkly rich” while others starve, have left their mark. The limousine is vomit-spattered, shattered and sprayed with anarchist slogans. It has become, like the one blazing in DC at Donald Trump’s inauguration, a monument to unrest. Packer is beautiful, and white, and 28 – much like Patrick Bateman in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. “A SPECTRE IS HAUNTING THE WORLD,” a neon sign reads, like one of Jenny Holzer’s Truisms, as Packer purrs by in his car. “THE SPECTRE OF CAPITALISM.” The sign could refer to him: he has the pallor, not to mention the chill affect, of a ghost.
Or, perhaps, a teenage vampire. When Cosmopolis first screened in 2012, the movie’s buzz centred around the fact that Robert Pattinson – lately of the blockbuster teen romance series Twilight – would be playing Eric Packer, who in Don DeLillo’s original novel utters the immortal line, “I want to bottle-fuck you slowly with my sunglasses on.” Pattinson was known primarily for being pretty, and if he was known for much else it was for exasperated interviews about the films that made him famous. “I want to do a movie with [Jean-Luc] Godard so badly,” he told the French magazine Les Inrockuptibles a few months after the release of Twilight: Breaking Dawn – Part 1, a declaration that led to some merriment from those who saw themselves as being above the kind of culture loved by adolescent girls. I remember seeing Cosmopolis in 2012, and thinking that his casting was a masterstroke – an empty vessel, as gorgeously inexpressive as a statue, to be filled with DeLillo and Cronenberg’s ideas about the ruling class.
When viewed in 2020, Cosmopolis is exhilarating in two ways. The first is that it offers up the soothing image of a billionaire capitalist brought to heel by riots. The second is that Pattinson’s work as Packer, thorough enough that it looks like natural blankness, has since turned out to be one of the earliest indications of his talent.
At present, Robert Pattinson is utterly believable as someone who might work with Godard; he is no longer a heart-throb, but an unpredictable star of the arthouse. Watch him talking about vomiting on himself while masturbating for The Lighthouse, or extolling the delights of sexual spitting, or inventing a disturbing childhood memory about witnessing a clown’s death at a circus (he later admitted the anecdote, told on the Today Show, was fabricated) and the general impression is not of a gorgeous, inexpressive statue, but of a man who at any moment might reveal himself to be an actual lunatic. As is true of Joaquin Phoenix, there is something faintly feral in his best performances – a loss of sense, of sanity, of dignity. He is still beautiful, but unsettlingly so, age hollowing what were already unreal cheekbones into caverns. (In another 20 years, he may look like his co-star in The Lighthouse, Willem Dafoe.) What he has done is let a fine machine – his bankable image as a boring cutie meant for kids – degrade in public. It might be a scandal if he had not proven quite so popular with, among others, directors such as Claire Denis, the Safdie brothers, Robert Eggers and James Gray. It might be scandalous if he were not so good.
If Cosmopolis seemed like an unlikely project for a director synonymous with body horror, it is only because what is horrible about its antihero is his disconnection from his body. Eric Packer, who speaks Don DeLillo’s dialogue like an AI reciting verse, is possessed of the coldest, quietest death wish in the history of cinema. “You’re like someone already dead,” someone tells him. “Many centuries dead.” So far, so on-brand for Pattinson: Twilight’s Edward Cullen had died from the Spanish flu. Still, what is striking, viewed in retrospect, is his restraint – the degree to which he withdraws, dampening what is evidently a chaotic inner life to almost nothing. There is one tremendous scene where Packer looks out of the window of his limousine and sees a protester on fire, and rather than being frightened, he is awestruck. “Imagine the pain,” he says, admiringly. It is, as played by Pattinson, a perfect indication of his privilege. Only somebody as insulated from the horrors of the real world as this white-skinned billionaire could look at protesters in agony, and see a work of art.
“Cosmopolis” is available to stream now on Amazon Prime Video
This article appears in the 08 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, State of the nation