Cosmopolis (MA). Director: David Cronenberg. Starring: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Sarah Gadon, Kevin Durand, Samantha Morton, Paul Giamatti, Patricia McKenzie. 109 minutes
The opening title sequence features the time-lapse apparition of a Pollock-esque splatter painting. Curlicues of gloomy colour fleck the screen, layer upon layer, forming a dense and convoluted labyrinth. A Pollock painting proffers a randomness and abstractness that only with time and reflection might suggest meaning. This is the kind of attention Canadian provocateur Cronenberg asks you to pay to Cosmopolis — be warned.
Eric Packer (Pattinson) is a Wall Street billionaire who sets off across town for the mundane purpose of getting a haircut. His transport is a modified limousine-cum-moveable office, sound- and bullet-proof and decked out with television and computer screens. But this is no mere luxurious cross-town drive. Traffic is at a virtual standstill, due to the coincidence of a presidential visit, the funeral of a Sufi hip-hop artist, and an anti-capitalist rally.
This purgatorial traffic jam hints at Packer's own encroaching hell. A bad investment has sent his vast fortune plummeting. It dwindles as the interminable road journey progresses, plunging Packer into a veritable existential funk. A drive to get a haircut evolves into a search for meaning in a life that's been dedicated to vacuous wealth.
En route Packer exchanges fluids and philosophical tete-a-tetes with a succession of advisors and colleagues. These exchanges are frequently cold and abstract, yet for the viewer are utterly compelling, as the actors emit authentic human feeling even as the dialogue consists of heady riddles and abstractions.
Try, for one, to take your eyes off Pattinson. He may have cemented himself in the minds and libidos of many an adolescent girl with his portrayal of a certain sulky vampire; here he is an altogether different beast. Packer is like a rancid egg; hard and beautiful exterior churning beneath with unglimpsed horrors and instability. He grows more complex with each twistedly comic or absurdly earnest, illuminating or incomprehensible encounter.
Packer's Virgil on his journey is his chief of security Torval (Durand), who speaks to him with the authority of 'The Complex', presumably the financial monolith to which Packer is bound and with which he shares a symbiotic relationship. Soon they learn that an assassin has made a credible threat on Packer's life. This worries Torval, but Packer is apathetic; he gradually becomes less interested in self-discovery, and more in self-destruction.
To pick apart the 'Blue Poles' of Cronenberg's nightmare vision of post-GFC New York (based, in turn, upon the vision proferred by Don DeLillo in his 2003 novel of the same name) is a difficult but rewarding exercise.
Packer may stand for the stock market players who decimated the global economy. One associate muses about the convergence of finance and data, which may be gained and lost with equal ease. Packer in turn reflects on the Zbigniew Herbert poem 'Report from the Besieged City', in which 'a rat became the unit of currency', and makes a sickly joke of it. Money corrupts, and for Packer, in his plight, this is a matter for sadomasochistic glee.
He is also, pointedly, 'the one per cent', who stoically discusses economics and politics with his chief advisor (Morton) even as the anti-capitalist protest broils outside; Occupy reimagined as animal anarchy, with protestors yielding cans of spray-paint and dead rats; 'the 99 per cent' of the besieged city raging to reassert their worth.
But Packer is also the IT generation cruelly satirised, traversing the globe within the hermetically sealed bubble of his limousine, connected to the outside world via his myriad screens, and by the series of advisors who visit his sphere as if from another planet. He is the isolated centre of the universe created by his wealth and position, disconnected despite the prevalence of 'connections'.
Though altogether too oblique to be entirely successful, Cronenberg's film culminates in a rivetting encounter between Packer and his would-be assassin (Giamatti), a former employee suffering a raft of social disorders. Their exchange of ideas comes close to providing a Rosetta stone to solve the puzzles that have come before; certainly it forces both men to deeper self-reflection than either has been accustomed to.
It is enough to demand a second viewing, though it seems unlikely that many viewers will be eager to visit Cosmopolis more than once.
Tim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street.