In reviewing the Don DeLillo novel that became this film, John Updike lamented that, despite the “haloes of import” weaving themselves around the events of the book, “the trouble with a tale where anything can happen is that somehow nothing happens.” There’ve been many odysseys since Homer recounted the one undertaken by Ulysses, but the modern odyssey has been cursed with the observation that nothing happens—despite all possibilities and evidences to the contrary—since Leopold Bloom took his in the novel bearing the homeric hero’s name. Boiled down, Ulysses is an argument that a single day in the life of an ordinary man has the same epic potential as a woe-begotten voyage across the sea. Cosmopolis, the DeLillo novel adapted by David Cronenberg, makes the same argument, except its protagonist is so obviously set apart from the notion of normality that, rather than watching him shit in an outhouse, we’re left wondering if he shits to begin with.
Don’t take this as evidence that nothing important happens here. Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) is as unsympathetic as protagonists get—an unaccountably rich young man who travels across the city in his bulletproof, cork-lined, technological terror of a limousine for a haircut despite Presidential visits, populist uprisings, and threats directed specifically towards him—but there’s something profound in the mundane way he comes to realize that his life is in crisis, something powerful about the way he responds.
It’s clear from the start that Packer could live in his limousine if he needed or wanted to. It’s outfitted with supercomputers and high-definition video screens, comes with a dedicated driver and crack security force. He tells a person in the car with him that he had the limo lined with cork to keep out street-level noise. There’s a hint of annoyance when he reports that it doesn’t work. He asks the driver where the cars go at night. He’s moved by the death of a rapper whose music constantly plays on the second of his private elevators. Packer’s elevated himself to godhood and isolated himself in his car, his office, and his apartment, but this is the day the world checks in to remind him that he is just a man.
This is fine by Packer, whose unstated goal for the evening is complete self-destruction. A parade of people who work for him (Jay Baruchel, Juilliette Binoche, Samantha Morton, and Emily Hampshire, among others) sit across from him in the limousine and deliver various bits of bad news. He gambled against the rising value of the Yen and lost. He cannot buy and transport a cathedral from Europe for the purpose of sealing it away from the rest of the world. His wife (Sarah Gadon) seems to only tenuously remember their marriage. Both question its function, have yet to consumate. His chief of security (Kevin Durand) knocks on the window to tell him that it’s better to turn back. There’s the President’s visit. The rapper’s funeral. A riot. His limo is battered, damaged, vandalized. He is stalked through the city despite his vehicle’s relatively mundane appearance among the rest of the white limousines. Though his life is actively worsening with every inch of separation between his limo and its point of origin, Hacker remains undaunted. He will have that haircut.
The haircut, of course, is nothing. It’s desire. Desire, Cronenberg suggests, more often than not ends in disappointment. Of the two arguments Cosmopolis makes, this is the more successful. This is obviously a film for and of its time, but any statement Cronenberg tries to make about the nature of money and misery can’t help but ring hollow. Eric Packer is a man too far removed from humanity to let something like the loss of wealth and autonomy spoil this detachment, and when a figure emerges from the shadows to embarrass him, his response is a fit of brutal violence. The most effective scenes here involve Packer’s interrogations of those whom he has real, unadulterated contact with. How does one detach themselves from the notion that someone is only sleeping with you because the thought of you as an assassination victim is a small excitement in an otherwise routine day? The idea of a haircut is nice, but does the excitement remain once the barber has dusted your shoulders? If he should slip and cut off too much?
Cosmopolis is a surprisingly unsettling film for much of its runtime, content to limit the actions to the busy, businesslike world of Packer’s limousine and the anarchy going on outside. The limo is not unlike the gate of a fortress, and those outside it, having laid siege on the vehicle’s occupant for most of the day, are tantalizingly close to bashing those gates in. One Packer roams free from his car, Cronnenberg is unable to maintain the vibe and momentum he’d so subtly built. The conflict, from that point on, is no longer between two colliding worlds, but two ships sending each other conflicting signals. In the barber chair or seated across from his “credible threat” (Paul Giamatti), Packer’s interactions with the people unfortunate enough to be in the same room as him feel like two people reading aloud pages from vastly different books. On one hand, that’s human interaction. On the other, Cosmopolis‘ refusal to submit to the needs of a standard narrative leads to a frustrating conclusion, with nothing resolved. The lives of two men intersect. All we know is that both have urges. For what? Not even they seem so sure.
Cosmopolis. With Robert Pattinson (Eric Packer), Kevin Durand (Torval), Jay Baruchel (Shiner), Juliette Binoche (Didi Francher), Samantha Morton (Vija Kinsky), Sara Gadon (Elise), Emily Hampshire (Jane Melman), and Paul Giamatti (Benno Levin). Directed by David Cronenberg from a screenplay by Cronenberg, based on the novel Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo.