The first thing you notice is that the limo isn’t moving. At the beginning of David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, the luxury vehicle bearing Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), a billionaire financial manager of some sort, is stuck in traffic. He’s on his way to get a haircut on the other side of Manhattan, a trip he insists on taking despite warnings from his bodyguard Torval (Kevin Durand) that it will be nightmarish.
Even though the car does transport Eric to a series of stops, interior shots deny the audience a sense of true forward motion. When the limo pushes forward, the images of the city we see through the windows look fake, and familiar New York background noise falls silent: no honking horns, no engine vibrations, hardly any sound at all, except the voices of Eric and whoever hitches a ride with him along the way.
This lack of sound exists whether the windows are open or closed—as Eric does when he has sex with his longtime mistress Didi (Juliette Binoche). It underscores a sense of fakeness for much of the film, as well as the metaphorical allusion of the drive: Eric is going nowhere. The world comes to him in his limo-shaped box: business, sex, even regular prostate exams from his doctor.
Cosmopolis never breaks from Eric’s point of view (Pattinson is in every scene), following him as exits the vehicle, as when he takes meals with his wife Elise (Sarah Gadon). They might be described as “estranged” if they ever looked to be more than cordial strangers in the first place. They speak to each other, as most of the characters in the movie do, in dialogue that is by turns witty, elusive, and theatrical. The writerly quality reminds us that Cronenberg’s screenplay adapts a Don DeLillo novel, making some narrative tweaks while maintaining much of the original dialogue.
The elevated patter, combined with the financial-world setting, at first seems to signal that Cosmopolis is a departure for the director, both from his creepy sci-fi horror days and his recent collaborations with Viggo Mortensen. But as the movie presses on, it feels more of a piece with Cronenberg’s oeuvre, unnerving and darkly funny. Eric’s semi-mobile fortress is tricked out with a number of touch-screens, their numbers constantly scrolling through his peripheral vision, and his various business associates talk in elevated, obtuse terms—Vija (Samantha Morton) drops by the car to talk about “cyber-capital”—that give the film an eerie science fiction-like quality.
From these otherworldly touches and a constructed New York City that only vaguely resembles the real thing, Cosmopolis builds surprising tension from what is essentially a 24-to-36-hour car ride (time is hard to measure here, another subtle source of anxiety). It is by no means a traditional thriller, but Cronenberg evokes a sense of dread, exacerbated by occasional, unpredictable bursts of violence. By the movie’s final stretch, Eric finds himself drawing a gun and walking down an icky greenish brown hallway that’s more recognizably Cronenbergian than his antiseptic white limo.
As usual, Cronenberg shows masterful control, starting with Pattinson. He uses the actor’s morose flatness to great effect. Playing a hollow, amoral human being, Pattinson is more hauntingly vampiric here than in any of his Twilight ventures, an impression emphasized by his occasional stumbles over DeLillo’s words.
Some audience members will stumble there, too. An hour and 48 minutes is a long time to listen to actors, however talented, speak in more or less the same narcotizing tones, dotted with zingy turns of phrase and stagy variations on phrases like “This is true” and “I know this.” The artifice can seem showboaty, an odd fit with Cronenberg’s precise, repetitive framing. But the film is premised on contrasts, especially between such verbal gobbledygook and the social unrest just outside Eric’s bunker on wheels; he’s bedeviled by an ongoing anti-capitalism protest, whose participants use dead rats as mascots, a backdrop drawn from DeLillo’s 2003 text that here feels vague and unnecessarily allusive.
But, just when the movie threatens to find a dead end in so much metaphor, Paul Giamatti turns up to bring it home. Playing Benno Levin, an unhinged man with a connection to Packer, he dominates the movie’s final stretch, which moves further from the limo’s comforts, down that greenish Cronenberg hallway. The car’s literal forward momentum stops, but the film’s keeps crawling toward an ending both poetic and inevitable—and, yeah, a little theatrical, too. Cronenberg and DeLillo’s clinical remove gives way to showmanship after all.