Sunday, August 26, 2012

COSMOPOLIS Is a Haunting, Nightmarish Vision from David Cronenberg


- David Cronenberg makes weird movies, movies that make you think, that can prove baffling, that haunt you. COSMOPOLIS is hardcore Cronenberg - the most extreme, hyperstylized, surreal, nightmarish movie he's made in years. This is a movie that will turn many off. You might hate it. I think many people in the theater I saw it in did. But as I watched, I did my best not to pay attention to others' reactions, and let myself get sucked in to the strange, nightmarish world that the movie presents. And man, did I get sucked in. I literally tossed and turned in bed that night, with scenes of the film playing over and over in my mind. This is a sticky one ... not easily forgotten or left behind. It's a movie of striking ideas and imagery. In short, this is classic Croenenberg - a mind-%$#@ of the highest order.

In Cosmopolis, Robert Pattinson plays Eric Packer, a young billionaire - a cold, almost emotionless asset manager who has become plugged-in practically 24/7 to his work, to his extravagant lifestyle, to the pursuit of money, power, sex, and material possessions. He lives in a bubble, sheltered as much as possible from the common people he shares his city with. That bubble is embodied in the film by Eric's tricked-out limo - a mobile fortress where Eric spends most of the film. We meet Eric exiting his towering office building, summoning for his limo to take him away, to go across town ... to get a haircut. But Eric's journey across town takes on the feeling of a waking nightmare. Eric is, at intervals, joined in his vehicle by business associates, mistresses, his personal doctor (he gets a daily physical), and other assorted people. All the while, he's tailed by his Head of Security, Torval (Lost's Kevin Durand), who is very concerned about his employer's well-being. The President, it seems, is in town, and an anarchist group has vowed to strike by causing chaos around the city. Supposedly, the President isn't their only target, but the city's wealthy elites - Packer, the ultimate one-percenter, might just be high on their list. As Packer's limo slowly wades its way through unmoving traffic, he also stops on occasion to meet with his equally cold and distant wife Elise, with whom he's yet to actually consummate his marriage of convenience, despite his strong wishes to do so. Meanwhile, the city is devolving into a hellish warzone as violence and anarchy escalates. Packer is mostly protected in his reinforced limo - but for how long?

As you can probably tell, COSMOPOLIS is not a straightforward narrative, per se. It's thick with metaphor, subtext, and ambiguity. The characters in the film talk in a hyperstylized manner - they seem robotic, alien, pre-programmed. The dialogue is written in a very unique manner that honors the style of the source material - the novel of the same name by author Don DeLillo. Characters talk in a hyper-formal dialect, using declaratory phrases, peppering their speech with repeated statements like "I do not know this." or "This is true." Some might get annoyed with the non-naturalistic speech. Personally, I found it fascinating. Cronenberg uses the formal dialect to paint a world lacking genuine human connection. People really do feel like automatons, struggling to communicate genuine feeling or human connection. This is exemplified in some of the great exchanges between Eric and his distant wife Elise. Eric can't understand why there's no physical or romantic connection between them, but he also doesn't seem to understand how to break down emotional barriers. Can Cosmopolis' protracted conversations at times get tedious? Yes, on occasion. But if you allow yourself to go with the unique rhythm of the dialogue and accept the artistic license taken, it becomes sort of fascinating.

There are lots and lots of big ideas in this film. At times, the dialogues the characters have do feel more like freshman-dorm-philosophy than legitimately substantive. But I think that's part of the point. These are characters who *think* they've got it all figured out, but don't. The underlying theme here though is that this is a world - an extreme mirror of our world - that is barely held together by a thin veneer of order. A world where men in ivory towers rule over society in a manner that just barely creates an illusion of democracy and individual freedom. But there are cracks. And when those cracks are made greater, when the shell is broken, all hell is poised to break loose. Cosmopolis paints a picture of two separate worlds on a collision course. On one hand is the world of the wealthy, the famous, the powerful, the good-looking, and those willing to sell their souls to be a part of that upper-echelon. On the other hand is the 99%, who grow increasingly restless, angry, rebellious, and desperate to reclaim their piece of the pie.

What's interesting about Eric's journey into the heart of darkness is that - even as he is strikingly cold and seemingly soulless, he keeps trying - sometimes half-heartedly, to dip a toe into the world that most people live in. He stops at all-too-ordinary diners for a bite to eat - perhaps trying to prove to himself that he can live just like everyone else, if he wants. And when we do finally meet his barber - played with old-world gusto by George Touliatos - we see that Eric clearly has a special affection for him because he's known Eric since he was a boy. He treats him less like an enigmatic billionaire, and more like a grandson - like a human being.

Robert Pattinson may seem like an odd match for David Cronenberg, but this is a part that the Twilight star is particularly suited for. The actor naturally has a sort of alien quality to him, and that otherworldliness makes him uniquely suited to play Eric here. Pattinson is engaging and does a great job with the distinct dialogue patterns of the movie. It's a performance that reminded me a bit of Christian Bale in American Psycho. Now, does Pattinson have quite the gravitas or range of Bale? No -  he does seem ever so slightly in over his head with how challenging the material is, and yet ... you can almost sense him getting better as the movie goes on. Pattinson really seems to find his footing in a climactic scene in which he plays a deadly game of cat and mouse with a disgruntled former employee played by Paul Giamatti. Giamatti is absolutely fantastic in the part - scary, manic, and pathetic all at once - and he and Pattinson play off each other brilliantly. The rest of the cast is very good, and everyone does a great job of playing to the off-kilter, left-of-center tone that Cronenberg is going for. There are some fun surprises, like Jay Baruchel popping up as an overenthusiastic lieutenant of Eric's, or Durand's slightly neurotic yet badass Security guy. I also thought Sara Gadon was a huge standout as Elise - despite being a frigid and aloof young woman, there's something absolutely hypnotic about the way Gadon plays her.

Like I said, there are segments of Cosmopolis that may feel like a bit of a slog, but I think you have to go into it open-minded. This is not a typical movie. It's theatrical, dialogue-heavy, and filled with big ideas that are never clearly spelled out - leaving a lot up to the individual viewer's interpretation. But I also never really found the movie boring - some, especially those prone to ADD, might. But I enjoyed going down this particular rabbit hole, I enjoyed being intellectually challenged. I think there IS a lot of substance to this movie, and while some may dismiss it as pretentious or as pseudo-intellectual, to me, there's nothing pseudo about David Cronenberg. He's a guy who knows what he's doing, and who clearly loves to push the boundaries of cinema and experiment. But make no mistake, Cosmopolis is filled with tension. It's disturbing, haunting, and oftentimes downright shocking. The echoes to our own socio-political reality are clear, but this is a through-the-looking glass, darkest-timeline version of our world - a nightmare reflection of what could be. Not for everyone - but for those filmgoers who love the weird, groteseque, challenging, and mind-bending, this one's for you.

My Grade: A-

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