NB: these are my notes on the film, not a review – so you might not want to read them if you’ve not seen it yet.
Though writer-director David Cronenberg shifts the action of Don DeLillo’s novel from its original 2003 setting to an undetermined near-future, he delivers one of the most faithful film adaptations ever of a literary work. Even Cronenberg’s Spider, which was scripted by novelist Patrick McGrath, deviates more from the page than this does. Reams of DeLillo’s dialogue gets reproduced word for word and almost every single incident and encounter from the book is carried over into the film. The currency speculation which brings about financial armageddon concerns the Chinese yuan, not the Japanese yen – but that’s almost the extent of the changes made to the text. It makes for a chilly, remote, admirable film of a book that was similarly smart but cold.
Early on, investment/speculator genius Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) has a speech about his two private elevators, how their mere existence infuriates the others in his building, the differing speeds and musical backgrounds to match his moods. It’s what you got on the page, it’s what you might get on the stage … but, in a movie, would it have killed the budget to show the elevators, to play the Satie or the (made-up) sufi rapper Brutha Fez, to picture Eric in this environment, an affront to the hordes queuing to cram into the other insufficient lifts in the building when he has the pick of two for himself? It’s hard to tell whether Cronenberg is falling back on fidelity, the way Robert Altman and William Friedkin did when all they could get funded were straight films of proven plays, or modestly curtailing his own undoubted vision and creativity to showcase the work of DeLillo. I like DeLillo, a novelist hitherto neglected by the cinema (I’ve not seen Game 6, which he scripted – his only other feature credit) … and I like McGrath, William Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, Stephen King, whom Cronenberg has turned to for source material … but I miss the David Cronenberg who came up with his own stories (even eXistenZ) or so mutated material (as in The Fly and Dead Ringers) as to subsume it entirely into his vision. Like Altman in the 80s, I hope he’s only resting. I’d happily take more films from the director of Stereo, Shivers, The Brood, Scanners or Videodrome over preservations of significant modern novels which might as well go to Joe Wright or Roger Michell.
When he was a specialist in films of books they said couldn’t be filmed (Naked Lunch, Crash), Cronenberg was in the frame to make American Psycho; this feels like an echo of that project. Eric Packer may not strictly be a serial killer – though he turns into a casual murderer – but he is an emblem of banking evil, which makes him the ideal hate figure for 2012 audiences living with the consequences of his quixotic and irresponsible genius. Pattinson was obviously cast to underline the fact that Packer is a kind of vampire, though the much-maligned actor is strong in the role. As with Christian Bale in American Psycho, it seems only a Brit can bring the right distance and reptilian presence to play the role. Pattinson’s detached sneer is perfect, but he shows flashes of the New York kid Packer used to be and carries off a descent into madness which includes flirting with a minion (Emily Hampshire) while having is ‘asymmetrical’ prostate fingered by a doctor, walking about with traces of cream from an anarchist pie-thrower (Mathieu Amalric) on his person and a half-finished New Wave haircut. Packer is a monster, but he’s supported by a range of compliant professional bizarros, including a theorist (Samantha Morton) who might be the 21stcentury iteration of Bianca O’Blivion from Videodrome, an art dealer lover (Juliette Binoche) who breaks the bad news that even he can’t buy the Rothko chapel, a princess poet wife (Sarah Gadon) who remains oddly untouchable, a jittery tech nerd (Jay Baruchel) who senses the coming infopocalypse and security pros he either kills (Kevin Durand) or fucks (Patricia McKenzie). Even his ultimate assassin (Paul Giamatti) is as much a fan as a stalker, someone dumped by the wayside by Packer’s colossal and ultimately meaningless schemes whose rant is defused by the target’s insight that he doesn’t care about anyone else either.
The first two-thirds of the film takes place almost entirely inside Packer’s stretch limo: a brilliantly-designed, seductively womblike capsule with high tech luxuries, cork-lined to ‘proust’ it against New York noise (the eerie quiet makes for some outstanding foley work). A riot is seen entirely from inside the car, as Packer keeps up a conversation even while the vehicle rocks and a street brawl is seen beyond the back window – unconcerned in his inviolate, invincible private space, which is visualised (unlike those lifts). Jonathan Romney mused in Sight & Sound that the film would be stronger if it radically rewrote the text so as to take place entirely in the limo. It does lose some tension when the battered, graffiti-scrawled vehicle is parked and Packer, who has spent the film trying to get across town despite gridlock (a stretch limo is a bloody stupid thing to try to drive through New York at the best of times) in order to have a haircut in his old neighborhood salon. It’s not exactly news that the world has been entrusted to numerate sociopaths who don’t care what happens to the peons (Packer views humanity with the sort of disinterest exhibited by HAL 9000 after it turns off life support in the cryo-chambers) so it’s hard to see much past the surfaces of Cosmopolis, whether they be Pattinson’s face or the tinted windows of his car. Interesting, but curiously resistable.
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