Blu-ray | DVD
Directed by David Cronenberg
Screenplay by David Cronenberg
Based on the novel by Don DeLillo
Starring Robert Pattinson, Paul Giamatti, and Juliette Binoche
Release Date: January 1, 2013
With his sizable personal fortune – not to mention the future of his company – hanging in the balance after making a high risk bet on the Chinese yuan, 27-year-old billionaire asset manager Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) just wants to get a haircut, and for some reason it requires a lengthy car trip across New York. Ensconced within the technologically-advanced interior of his stretch limousine, Eric’s journey is perennially delayed by traffic jams caused by the President’s visit to the city and riots being instigated by anti-capitalist revolutionaries waving dead rats and chanting “a specter is haunting the world – the specter of capitalism.”
As his destination creeps ever closer, he entertains an eclectic variety of employees and fast friends (including Jay Baruchel, Samanthan Morton, and Juliette Binoche) in his limo and constantly runs into his emotionally distant new wife (Sarah Gadon), whose conversations with Eric always end in her rejecting his cold overtures for sex, compelling him to seek carnal pleasure from a v. With his entire world around him and the possibility of a threat against his life informing his every move, Eric is confronted by Benno Levin (Paul Giamatti), a man with a personal connection to the young master of the universe that as it becomes clearer will bring the destinies of both individuals into a collision of philosophical musings and sudden violence.
Before I get to the meat of this review allow me to begin by saying that I consider David Cronenberg to be one of our finest living filmmakers. Watch any three of the movies he has made in a directing career that spans nearly four decades – and counting – and you might not consider that to be a gross overstatement. Cronenberg made his name with movies that dared to go places that would give a Spielberg or even a Scorsese soiled underwear at the very thought. For years he was the man to go to when you were looking for a horror or science-fiction feature that could provide ample exhilarating thrills with a healthy side dish of through-provoking themes and nauseating visual effects. Cronenberg’s earliest films Rabid, Shivers (aka They Came from Within), and The Brood were cult classics in the days when such movies could easily get a theatrical release before being shunted off to grow in popularity on VHS and laserdisc. His first major studio film Videodrome became one of the most acclaimed and influential genre films of the 1980s even though the studio’s pathetic marketing efforts helped it to bomb at the box office and the director’s intended cut would not see video release until nearly a decade after its theatrical bow.
Three years after Videodrome, Cronenberg scored the biggest hit of his career with the brilliant remake of The Fly, one of those rare studio-sanctioned redos that managed to outclass the original in every imaginable way. Since then the director has made some of the most challenging works of cinema almost every time he steps behind the camera. The Dead Zone, Naked Lunch, Crash, eXistenZ, A History of Violence, Eastern Promises – take your pick, each and every one is a winner and a classic. He even made a cameo appearance in Jason X, the Friday the 13th sequel where Jason goes on a killing spree in space, and knocked that out of the park too! Such are the reasons why a new David Cronenberg film is a huge cause for celebration to me.
Of all the Cronenberg movies I have seen few have tested my patience, my intellect, and my sanity with stellar results as Cosmopolis. When it comes to his films I never try to have expectations because the end result is usually their complete inverse, but with Cosmopolis I had no such illusions. Before the movie hit theaters last summer I had not been familiar with the novel by Don DeLillo and the biggest news surrounding the production was Cronenberg’s decision to cast teen magazine bait Robert Pattinson in the lead role. The star of the blockbuster Twilight franchise may be an object of squealing adoration to the world’s population of prepubescent girls and middle-aged soccer moms, but once removed from the realm sparkly vampires and Kristin Stewart’s vacuous, open-mouth stares, Pattinson has yet to prove himself as a competent actor, even though he tends to be one of the better performers in the Twilight series. Perplexing source material, an untested (though not for lack of trying) lead actor, and a director who many of us wish would make another movie about people having their vital organs mutated into weapons made of pulsing flesh and sinew – Cosmopolis warrants at least one viewing just for the sake of curiosity.
Twenty minutes into my initial viewing of the movie I was prepared to call it a night. I just could not get into it. Eric Packer, his sterile and sex-and-numbers-obsessed world, and those endless conversations conducted inside the limousine were of absolutely no interest to me whatsoever. It seemed to me at first that Cosmopolis was less of a motion picture and more of a staged reading of the DeLillo novel with better visual quality. It just bored me to tears, literally; I was yawning so hard and frequently my eyes watered. To be honest I have nothing against literary exercises in cinema, but when a movie makes the experience of watching it feel like you’re having the book read to you by a dry intellectual something has gone horribly wrong. After about forty minutes I thought I had Cosmopolis figured out. Well it certainly serves me right to underestimate David Cronenberg, one of our finest makers of films adapted from dense, occasionally idiosyncratic novels. He has made masterful works of cinema out of some of the most polarizing books of our time and each one took years to find audiences outside of the planet’s arthouse theaters and film festivals, but now the aforementioned Naked Lunch and Crash are highly regarded features that would have handily defeated a lesser director. Cronenberg may often take on source material that is challenging to say the least, but rarely is the man ever outmatched. Cosmopolis, for the most part, is no different.
Upon finishing the movie I came to the understanding that maybe this was not a world I was meant to be fully invested in; the characters of Cosmopolis speak in a cold, alien language of numerology and a pithy understanding of world affairs. In this world, these people, if you can call them that, fail to see the forest for the trees because the forest has been bulldozed into oblivion and replaced by a sleek urban center that succeeds in making the locations in Canada the movie was filmed on look about as much like the real life New York as Stanley Kubrick failed to do with his beloved London in his final film Eyes Wide Shut, which would make an appropriate companion film with Cronenberg’s. The emotional detachment runs so high in this story that one cannot be faulted for being unable to sympathize with any of the characters. Eric Packer, played with an astute sense of aloofness by Pattinson, is the most detached of the whole lot: his every waking hour is spent in the pursuit of carnal satisfaction and the pleasures of a decent haircut at the barber he has known since childhood. That singular quest is the engine that powers the plot of the film and once Eric reaches his intended destination it all begins to make sense. Throughout the movie we’re left wondering why it is so vital that he must brave a treacherous cross-town journey and risk life and limb just to get his hair cut, but what we ultimately learn that Eric deserves to get much more from his trip to this particular barber. That may sound extremely pretentious when you first give it consideration, and yet the more you think of it the more the layers upon layers start to peel away. Then you will spend even more time trying to figure out what it all means. Cronenberg isn’t exactly one to spell everything out for his audience.
The character interactions are shot in tight close-ups and the director allows most of them to play out in uninterrupted takes that make the scenes feel like they’re unfolding in real time. The topics of conversation are generally irrelevant; it is the sobering, impassive manner in which they converse that speaks volumes as to how far they have fallen as human beings capable of connecting with others. Oftentimes they seem disinterested in whether or not the other person is even listening to them, something which is strongly indicated in the occasional repetition or paraphrasing of dialogue already spoken and brought to mind, for me at least, the stage plays of David Mamet. During one conversation inside the limo a riot is breaking out on the street and the car is being defiled by protesters and yet Eric can hardly bother to notice it happening. Later in the movie after a bout of sex with a comely business associate (Patricia McKenzie), he asks her to shoot him with her taser gun, and even though it is one of the primary concerns for the delay in the traffic Eric has to be constantly reminded of the presence of the President in the city.
A friend of mine suggested to me that Cosmopolis is possibly what the film version of Bret Easton Ellis’ controversial novel American Psycho would have resembled had Cronenberg directed it, as he once almost did early in that feature’s journey to the silver screen. Though both the novel and the film of Cosmopolis are lacking in the graphic violence and vicious black comedy of American Psycho, they have in common with Ellis’ novel a cold protagonist who has become so immersed in his hermetically-sealed lifestyle of wealth and pleasure that he has literally forgotten the person he used to be. In the case of Cosmopolis we get a much better sense of who our lead character once was, though it tends to come in brief spurts and in the form of murmured dialogue and Pattinson’s body language that indicates there is still a sensible person inside yearning to break free, but finding it easier to give up and enjoy life for what it is and what it has given him. He has become a passive spectator to the world around him, unable to express emotion except in cases you would least expect such reactions, as when Eric discovers that his favorite rapper Brutha Fez has died.
The performances in the film rarely transcend how the characters are presented on the script page, but in this case it hardly feels necessary; in a way they are just another piece of the puzzle for us to decipher and the acting is more than suitable for that cause. Pattinson honestly surprised me with his performance. I have never been a fan of his because I don’t like sparkly vampires and nothing else he has done as an actor has interested me enough to watch, but here he rises to the occasion and delivers an oddly touching performance as a man who has, through the acquisition of great wealth and perceived authority, become a cipher. The only drawback is Pattinson’s dearth of strengths as an actor; when he is playing against lesser or equally capable performers he holds his own, but in the final moments when he faces off with Paul Giamatti (looking more like Harvey Pekar than he has since American Splendor) he is consistently on the verge of becoming a palm tree being whipped furiously by a tropical storm. In the end his acting didn’t offend or amaze me. It is what it is and that is what Cosmopolis demands, nothing more. At least in the movie there is strong justification for Pattinson’s typical display for callous impassivity, unlike with the Twilight movies. Giamatti gives a more rounded portrayal of an individual representative of those who exist on the end of the spectrum opposite from Packer: the people who are so opposed to letting the system break them down that they become destitute and full of regret and despair in the process. Most of the other actors are strong in their brief moments of screen time and in those isolated moments you get a stronger sense of who these people are with a good monologue that additional scenes would have accomplished.
The theme of metamorphosis has been a constant throughout Cronenberg’s directing career; his characters are rotting away on the inside or the outside and nothing less than complete change will be the culmination of their arcs. By the end of the movie Eric Packer will be as much of a satisfied human being as he will likely ever be again. Cronenberg ends the film in a way that may come off as abrupt and inconclusive at first (another trademark of the director), but unlike the novel in which Eric’s fate is more explicit the filmmaker understands that what happens beyond the final scene is totally irrelevant to his main character’s personal journey. A movie as exigent and thought-provoking as Cosmopolis can only end in complete ambiguity. From there the rest is up to us.
Cosmopolis has been presented by Entertainment One as a 1080p high-definition 1.85:1 widescreen transfer. Picture quality is outstanding for the most part with the crisp and claustrophobic digital cinematography by Peter Suschitzky looking very sharp and vibrant. The color palette is slightly muted without seeming drab and the stylistic visuals of the limousine and the warm but decaying interiors of the barber shop and Benno’s rundown apartment have a quietly oppressive beauty about them. The print contains precious little grain and is throughout clean and free of artifice. English subtitles are included.
Both the English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and 5.1 Dolby Digital audio tracks presented on this Blu-ray are strong and non-intrusive for a movie that demands at times almost complete silence during the dialogue scenes, which are very discernible to the ear. Howard Shore‘s beautifully eccentric score is given great spatial presence particularly in the opening and closing moments and the credits sequences. For a movie that hardly requires superior audio presentation Entertainment One certainly did very well by Cosmopolis.
On the surface the supplements line-up for Cosmopolis does not seem like much, but this is a case where quality definitely trumps quantity. Cronenberg has contributed audio commentaries to the DVD and Blu-ray releases of most of his films in the past and they are usually the best feature on the disc. His commentary for Cosmopolis makes for a fascinating listen as the legendary filmmaker discusses at great length the process that went into adapting DeLillo’s novel into screenplay form, working with the moderately untested Pattinson, the complications of filming on the limo set, and the specific themes of the book that he hoped would translate well to the screen. The track can be dry as the desert and overtly intellectual and at times and Cronenberg tends to speak barely above a whisper, but his commentaries are always detailed, condensed film school courses and there is a great deal of information and anecdotes to be heard here. All in all, this is a solid chat track.
Next up is the best feature on the disc, the feature-length documentary “Citizens of Cosmopolis.” At a running time of 110 minutes – which is about how long the movie itself is – this doc provides us with a comprehensive look at the arduous process of principal photography, including the elaborate filming inside the limousine set, which was constructed on a green screen stage. Cronenberg, Pattinson, and many other members of the cast and crew offer their insights into working on the production, thoughts on the perplexing thematic elements of the story, and collaborating with Cronenberg. Candid behind-the-scenes footage of the filming of select scenes and the detailed preparation that goes into their creation make up up the bulk of the documentary. If you end up liking Cosmopolis you will doubtlessly enjoy this feature.
Many of the documentary’s participants also sit down for a series of cast and crew interviews (27 minutes) that look like they were done for the film’s electronic press kit. Each interviewee gives answers that were asked off-camera and each answer is brief yet occasionally concise and interesting. Not the most illuminating of features but these interviews do contain some information you may not get from either the longer documentary or Cronenberg’s commentary track.
A trailer for Cosmopolis and upfront previews for Starbuck and Special Forces round out the extra feature selection.
It will take some time before I am able to fully sort out my feelings regarding Cosmopolis, but it was definitely not the movie I was expecting. This is the kind of brain-teasing cinema that’s the product of an almost bygone era where it was more important to engage and enlighten your viewers than it was to give then soulless entertainment value. Regardless of whether you enjoy the movie or not is besides the point; David Cronenberg has made a unique and challenging motion picture that will enrapture your sense if you approach it in the proper frame of mind. Otherwise you best hurry to your local multiplex while Texas Chainsaw 3D is still playing. If you are willing to give Cosmopolis a chance, Entertainment One has put together an outstanding Blu-ray to help your decision lean toward a positive affirmation. Highly recommended.