David Cronenberg appears to have a vocation to make films of novels that frankly seem unadaptable to the screen—“Crash,” “Naked Lunch” and “Spider” are clear examples. (“The Dead Zone” was obviously cinematic, and it remains an uncharacteristic—if excellent—movie.) Now he tackles Don DeLillo’s 2003 “Cosmopolis,” a rumination on the darkest implications of the capitalist ethos in the form of a darkly humorous portrait of the disintegration of both one individual and the society as a whole. Like the author’s other books, most directors would reject it as simply unfilmable; it’s hardly accidental that all previous efforts to adapt his novels have stalled in development. But as with Ballard, Burroughs and McGrath, Cronenberg uncannily finds a visual equivalent for DeLillo’s prose. The result will frustrate and even anger viewers brought up on superhero blockbusters, but though hardly a crowd-pleaser, it’s the sort of challenging, thought-provoking, stylistically striking piece of auteurism one rarely encounters nowadays, even in European films.
DeLillo’s book is actually of novella size, covering a single day—the last—in the life of Eric Packer, a Wall Street wunderkind whose financial empire collapses because he’s bet wrong on a downturn in the yen, borrowing huge sums to back up his prediction. It’s narrated as Packard is driven across town in his white limo for a haircut he’s determined to have, on a day when a presidential motorcade, the very public funeral of a rapper, and violent anarchist demonstrations against the economic system bring traffic to a crawl.
That gives Packard plenty of time for conversations with his colleagues—his technology chief Shiner, his currency analyst Chin, his chief of finance Melman, his chief theoretician Kinski—as well as his daily physical, including an excruciatingly protracted prostate exam, in the car. It also allows him to stop repeatedly for meals and talk with his wife Elise, a wealthy poetess, brief exchanges with his security chief Torval, and a session in the sack with his mistress Didi before he reaches the barber shop run by his dad’s old pal Anthony. Adding to the tension along the way is a report that someone is out to assassinate Eric, as well as an incident in which he’s attacked by Andre, a world-famous “pastry assassin” who, accompanied by his own bank of photographers, slams a pie in his face. Ultimately Packer faces off against his would-be killer Benno, his own energy and ambition spent.
DeLillo tells this story of individual and societal disintegration in spare, crystalline prose and mannered, cryptic dialogue, and Cronenberg responds with amazing fidelity to the printed text. He eliminates a few episodes, like one involving a film shoot and transfers others from elsewhere to the car interior, and naturally drops much “interior” material, not only for Packer but for Benno; and he replaces yen with yuan, reflecting the shift in economic power from Japan to China. But otherwise he translates page to screen with remarkable exactness. Virtually every line of dialogue is lifted from the book—and when spoken, it sounds even odder and archer.
The images, too, replicate the author’s descriptions with great precision. But in the hands of Cronenberg and his expert team (production designer Arv Greywal, art director Joshu de Cartier, set decorator Steve Shewchuk and costume designer Denise Cronenberg, with cinematographer Peter Suschitzky and editor Ronald Sanders photographing and pacing their work with the utmost care), they take on a dreamy, hallucinatory quality reminiscent of the mood that Kubrick brought to his film of “Eyes Wide Shut.” Kubrick might come to mind in the film’s final sequence—the confrontation between Eric and Benno—as well, but in that case it will be the Humbert-Quilty face-off at the end of “Lolita.” Howard Shore adds to the atmosphere with a score that sometimes barely registers—a suggestive, almost inaudible background drone.
The cast respond to the director’s vision admirably. Robert Pattinson gives what’s easily his best performance as Packer—admittedly not saying much, given his earlier work. But he genuinely captures the character’s combination of oily, manipulative power and smarmy attractiveness, as well as his emotional deterioration as the day wears on. Most of the others—Juliette Binoche (Didi), Mathieu Amalric (Andre), Jay Baruschel (Shiner), Philip Nozuka (Chin), Kevin Durand (Torval), Emily Hampshire (Melman), Samantha Morton (Kinski), George Touliatos (Anthony), Abdul Ayoola (Ibrahim, the driver—have brief turns but make the most of them. Bur Sarah Gadon, as the weirdly detached Elise, and Paul Giamatti, as the wild-eyed Benno, have to be singled out for exceptionally vivid work.
“Cosmopolis” has a good deal of the hypnotic character of Cronenberg’s greatest film, “Dead Ringers.” Though emotionally cold and methodical in a way that will perplex and even antagonize many viewers, it’s some kind of great film made from some kind of a great book, and even those who dislike it intensely will find the memory of it difficult to shake (which will probably make them dislike it all the more). And, frankly, one relishes the thought of “Twilight” devotees flocking to see Pattinson and encountering the dark, diseased Eric Packer instead of pasty, doe-eyed Edward Cullen. Of course, his character here is another kind of vampire—one who sucks up wealth and leaves only a shriveled social husk behind. Packer’s only romance is with mathematical calculation and monetary theory, and Pattinson’s young fans won’t find that very fulfilling.