Although David Cronenberg is particularly recognised for creating gruesome venereal horror films, his work in recent years has moved further away from the horror genre. His latest effort, Cosmopolis, embraces a slow-paced, dialogue-heavy style which is far removed from earlier, more commercial films such as The Fly (1986). Adapted from the novel by Don DeLillo, Cosmopolis shows us a day in the life of Wall Street multi-billionaire Eric Packer (played by Twilight star Robert Pattinson), a day largely consisting of a tedious quest across the city in the back of a limousine, all in pursuit of getting a haircut. This is framed against a backdrop of monetary failure and anti-capitalist rioting, harking back to the global financial crisis of 2008. The burden of money and a preoccupation with superficial matters means that Packer brings to mind a contemporary Patrick Bateman from American Psycho (2000), only without the humour, charisma and overwhelming psychopathic tendencies (so basically, without any of the things that make the character interesting).
While fans of the novel may be pleased that Cronenberg has chosen to retain much of the dialogue from the book, the long, eloquent sentences recited with little variance in tone mostly manage to alienate the viewer. Real-life speech contains pauses, fillers, interruptions, backtracking and repetition, whereas in Cosmopolis the dialogue literally sounds like it is being read aloud straight from the novel’s pages. Art films frequently prioritize dialogue over plot in order to capture the realities of everyday conversation and to present the audience with characters that we can really get to know, but in this instance the dialogue really tells us nothing remotely compelling. Conversations about the economy, capitalism, and “deep” philosophical questions or observations about life (“What does it mean to spend money?”) sound very clever at first, but the responses given actually teach us very little of interest about the characters on-screen. The stilted dialogue and lack of feeling is present among all the film’s characters, despite the appearance of actress Samantha Morton who is the Queen of emotion in films like Control (2007) and Morvern Callar (2002). We can assume then that this was a deliberate directorial decision on the part of Cronenberg, and not attribute much blame to the actors involved.
The cinematography and editing, at times, also contribute to the stilted effect. The way that some of the sequences were pieced together felt awkward and resulted in more of my attention being drawn to the cuts between shots (and sometimes to the dodgy green screen scenery outside the car’s windows) than to the complicated dialogue in the scene. The cumulative effect of all of this is that the film is extremely difficult to engage with. The characters are not interesting, the dialogue is not interesting, the plot is not interesting, and the way that everything is presented to us doesn’t help matters one bit. The one positive that I can draw from the film is that sometimes the deadpan tone in which dialogue is spoken is used fairly effectively to create humour, particularly in the case of ridiculous lines like “my prostate is asymmetrical.” One scene involving a rectal examination in the back of the limousine has the potential to be hilarious, but the continuous use of disjointed and uninteresting dialogue results in the segment being only marginally less boring than all the rest in the film.
The decision to set the bulk of the film in the back of a limo is an interesting one. The limo acts as Packer’s bubble from the outside world, suggesting that the luxury of being able to have everything he wants has led him to become numb to everything outside himself. Pain and fear are not emotions which seem to affect Packer, in fact he seems to welcome danger with open arms as a break from monotony; the numerous threats on his life cause him very little concern and he feels the need to continue on the all-important journey to the barbers even as a riot goes on right outside his car. Inside the limo the sounds of the angry crowds outside are reduced to silence, resulting in the car, and Packer inside it, seeming even more disconnected from reality. However, similar comments on the nature of capitalism and greed have been made before in other films, films which also succeed in being much less tedious than this one.
Generally speaking, even when I dislike a film personally I can still acknowledge that there are things about it which different viewers may find appealing. In the case of Cosmopolis, I really struggle to do this. Though some critics have described the film as “riveting”, I honestly can not bring myself to recommend this to anybody.