Rage is rarely cold. Whether it's the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street or Network, discontent with the state of the world usually comes to us piping hot, often satisfyingly so. That's why it's so disconcerting when a movie goes the opposite route, serving up its message with a calm, dispassionate air. Cosmopolis doesn't want to incense you—it wants to chill your blood.
For a lot of people, Cosmopolis is simply the film with that Twilight guy in it. Robert Pattinson plays Eric Packer, a twenty-something billionaire who spends most of the movie sitting in the back of his stretch limo as his driver takes him across Manhattan to get a haircut. The movie is an adaptation of Don DeLillo's novel, and while there is something of a narrative spine holding the film together, Cosmopolis largely works as an episodic portrait of an emotionally distant one-percenter doing whatever it is that the insanely wealthy do.
The casting of Pattinson may seem like a stunt to boost box office—a way to lure swooning girls to a meditative, sardonic drama they'd otherwise avoid—but writer-director David Cronenberg (Eastern Promises, A History of Violence) has smartly capitalized on his young star's persona, perverting his public image for the filmmaker's purposes. In the Twilight films, Pattinson plays a brooding, beautiful, sensitive heartthrob—a tragic, sympathetic figure—which has made the actor a beloved pinup. But with Cosmopolis, Pattinson portrays a different kind of vampire, an inhuman monster who lives off others' hard work and has to barricade himself away from the masses. (The limo he inhabits might as well be a tomb.) It's not uncommon for popular stars to play darker versions of their onscreen selves—think Tom Cruise's Frank T.J. Mackey in Magnolia—and so Pattinson falls into a fine tradition of Hollywood celebrities screwing with their fans' heads.
Cronenberg, too, is challenging his audience. Cosmopolis is not a film designed for glowing CinemaScore ratings—it's a chilly, distant, withholding drama that doesn't resolve itself in a tidy way. (Unlike a lot of state-of-the-world films, Cosmopolis doesn't give the audience a therapeutic "I'm as mad as hell" moment where our collective frustration is articulated by a character. And even when something like that moment seems to arrive, it doesn't play out the way we'd expect.) In addition, Cronenberg has his cast give passionless readings to the clipped, mannered dialogue, suggesting a heightened reality in which even recognizable human interaction has short-circuited. The characters in Cosmopolis aren't user-friendly and aren't meant to be. But once you get into the film's peculiar rhythms, Cosmopolis becomes hypnotic—a surreal, hyper-aware updating of our modern anxieties about the dehumanization brought on by wealth, power, and technology.
Because of the film's episodic structure, the people around Eric come and go, most of them appearing for one scene and then never being heard from again. Unfortunately, that gives Cosmopolis a hit-or-miss quality. (Juliette Binoche's scene as Eric's mistress is over far too fast; Jay Baruchel's as Eric's technology chief goes on too long.) But it also creates a reality in which everyone Eric encounters is just another data point, not unlike the endless stock numbers on the consoles he's always playing with in his limo. None of these people means anything to him—they're as remote as the rabid protesters spray-painting his limo and pounding on the windows, wanting to kill him.
If Cosmopolis leaves you feeling nothing for its main character, that's by design. Even as Eric's possible comeuppance seems imminent near the end, Pattinson doesn't try to make us care about this poor, heartless bastard. Cronenberg's claustrophobic construction of Eric's world is brilliant and monochromatic and entirely unnerving. Cronenberg and Pattinson have given us a frightening image of the modern power player as utterly soulless cipher. So often, Hollywood's Wall Streeters are arrogant young twits hellbent on screwing over everyone in sight. Cosmopolis suggests something even more frightening: They're so disconnected from the world that they no longer remember what emotions even are. Maybe Pattinson isn't playing a vampire in this movie—he's a zombie.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.