Film Review: 'Cosmopolis' is challenging ride for viewers

Sarah Gadon plays billionaire Robert Pattinson's high-society wife in David Cronenberg's "Cosmopolis."

Alfama Films/Prospero Pictures

Sarah Gadon plays billionaire Robert Pattinson's high-society wife in David Cronenberg's "Cosmopolis."

Pale "Twilight" vampire Robert Pattinson is a less romantic type of bloodsucker for a less compassionate world in "Cosmopolis," the latest chilly masterpiece of cold dread and collapsing reason from David Cronenberg, who after some 40 years in the director's chair is now unmatched by his peers.

Working with difficult material (in this case, a novel by Don DeLillo), the cerebral yet intuitive filmmaker crafts movies of such compositional elegance, purposeful design and psychological resonance that a sympathetic viewer can only react with awe.

New York City, not-too-distant-future: Eric Packer, a 28 year-old finance golden boy dreaming of living in a civilization ahead of this one, watches a dark ...

Rating: R for some strong sexual content including graphic nudity, violence and language

Length: 105 minutes

Released: August 17, 2012 NY/LA

Cast: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Sarah Gadon, Mathieu Amalric, Jay Baruchel

Director: David Cronenberg

Writer: Don DeLillo, David Cronenberg

More info and showtimes »

Not everyone will sympathize. Disdain and disgust may be the reaction of some viewers to the challenging "Cosmopolis," a black comedy as dry and deadpan as a bleached skull. To this end, the movie opens with a sort of death's-head grin: An in-your-face close-up of the grille of a stretch limousine, one of a fleet of identical vehicles assigned to transport 28-year-old billionaire asset manager Eric Packer (Pattinson) on a seemingly simple cross-town mission that degenerates into an absurdist crawl of self-gratification and self-destruction, a journey as glacial as the car's occupant.

Cannily cast to exploit his vampiric fame, Pattinson is introduced in stylish formal attire and sunglasses; if he "sparkles," it is with the smugness of wealth and power. The "foully and berserkly rich" Packer is a "master of the universe," which may explain why at age 4 he calculated what he would weigh on each of the planets; no wonder the airtight, soundproofed limousine in which he (and we) spend almost the entire film is a sort of space capsule — or vampire's deluxe coffin? — that glides through the streets of Manhattan with the cool certainty of a Kubrickian spacecraft (2012: a stretch odyssey).

As shot by Cronenberg's usual cinematographer, Peter Suschitzky, the vehicle appears as deep as space itself; it seems almost to have a vanishing point ("I feel located totally nowhere," says one rider). More than a transport, it is Packer's home base for a rotating cast of business associates and sexual partners.

"We're impenetrable — there is no vulnerable point of entry," says an adviser played by Jay Baruchel, whose rubbery agitation is the flip side of Pattinson's cool. He's unaware that his assertion echoes the tension generated by the billionaire's beautiful young high-society wife (Sarah Gadon), the only woman who won't have sex with Packer.

Initially, the interior of the limousine is intentionally "fake," as evident by the steady lighting: We're obviously on a set, the phony exteriors passing by the windows having been added in postproduction. Meanwhile, visitors convey oracular messages about "the interaction between technology and capitalism." Says one adviser (Samantha Morton): "All wealth has become wealth for its own sake — money has lost its narrative qualities, the way painting did once upon a time." (Packer is a fan of Mark Rothko, the abstract expressionist whose journey into darkness offers a premonition of the film's narrative arc.)

As the motorcade progresses, the outside world intrudes: Street protests, vandalism, even self-immolations — the 99 percent in uprising. Dead rats are flung about in political acts of street theater: How puny is the rodents' ability to carry Black Plague compared to the world-wrecking recklessness of the money managers?

Packer initially seems unconcerned by the chaos, even as traffic slows to a crawl, thanks to the unrest, the funeral of a superstar Sufi rapper and a presidential motorcade. "Do people still shoot at presidents?" Packer asks, as if the notion is quaint: He knows billionaires have more influence. But as the movie (the journey) progresses, he loses his glasses, his tie, his coat — he becomes, like his assets, more exposed.

This man with an "asymmetrical" prostate and, eventually, an asymmetrical haircut misses the message conveyed by his body: He must heed the "lopsided" unpredictable nature of reality, which defies even the market calculations of his minions. This message is delivered by a stalker (Paul Giamatti) in a final scene that doesn't quite ring true. Strangley, once the movie is liberated from the confined space of the car, the action feels constricted.

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