Eric Packer is dead, and we are his procession. We are as chilly of onlookers as Packer himself, at a camera angle just above and tilted down to his head, and the limousine is his coffin of choice. Cosmopolis is the story of his ascent from a cold hell to a hot one, one where vengence and art and a -real- death exist for us, finally, away from the iron of time and molten honeyed money.
The plot is this : billionaire Eric Packer is driven across town to get a haircut. The journey is difficult and sabotaged at every turn (by himself and others) and eventually he does receive- one-half of a haircut. The themes, though, are multivariate and ripened for us- the detachment of life from capital, the infinite divisions of time and cash, the embalming quality of this wealth- all present in a cross-city drive.
The mechanics or sausage-making of film won’t be discussed so much here, but it’s worth stopping to say the performance hangs on Pattinson. His pale pallor serves him well, coming just off Twilight Saga : Breaking Dawn — Part 1 in 2011, “breaking dawn” referring to the merciful end of that franchise in 2012. Cronenberg is not really up to his usual antics here but translates DeLillo’s material with precision- DeLillo returning the favor by writing lyrics for an original song by the fictional Brutha Fez, an Islamic rap artist who Packer pipes into his private elevator (a narrative fact that I report with some joy).
It’s tempting for newcomers to call the dialogue “stilted”, but familiars of DeLillo’s prosody will stick to “measured”, with the lines paced much more like a stage play than anything intentionally quippy. This leans into all the external action, all on a lower or detached plane from the laden protagonist- both in his physical conditions and attitude. He panics at no point during the film, caring little for the antics of the anarchists around. The only other character to truly match his chilled persona is his newly-minted wife, his double in both demeanor and personal fortune.
The aura of wealth surrounds them both as individuals and as a freshly minted couple- like two similarly charged poles, their power is personal and moving, but they find each other repellent. She complains about his lack of intimacy and quite correctly accuses Packer of infidelity as cooly as Packer later commits murder. All the actions seem shocking to us, rote to him- he is displayed onscreen twice having sex with his employees as if it’s written into their contract along with a severance package. The most erotic scene is hidden very cleverly by DeLillo, wedged between Packer’s daily medical exam and a conversation with one of his financial analysts, a mother and runner. I will let viewers look for themselves but it does serve as a reminder to us that the true tantalization comes in the moments before, the unsaid, the hesitancy — the two never touch. Two vehicles narrowly missing each other, a limbic game of chicken.
The film is not as “anti-capitalist” or “subversive” as modern audiences rapturously seek today. It’s really the thin sympathy we have toward Packer that keeps things ticking. His actions ultimately represent more a creature rattling the bars of his cage than that of a spoiled child. Yes, the caricature-qualities of the 1% are present — sex-obsessed, scores of assistants, routines bent to a singular desire- the perceived benefit that wealth brings is the ultimate enforcement of one’s own neuroses. This is of course banality. And the rest of the kinship we can muster from him stems from the feeling that we are all, eventually, fucked by the same system.
I’ll end with a riddle and the answer to a different one. What possesses a man to begin with a Pollock and end with a Rothko? The same impulse that drives all tributaries of suffering, chance, humiliation, dread, into one roaring rushing river, flushed out, smashed-together bilge in the gulf of a singular void; that is, swimming with instead of against the current. We find Mr. Packer, then, already too far downstream.