Monday 18 June 2012
Cos n’ Effect
Directed by David Cronenberg
Playing at UK cinemas now
Warning: In reading this review you will be sitting
in a metaphorical traffic jam with a load of spoilers
glancing at you from other lanes. Beware.
I should probably start off this little review with a warning that I haven’t actually read Don DeLillo’s novel, the one that Cronenberg took as his starting point for this work. So I don’t know if this movie version is actually a literal adaptation of the work or if Cronenberg has taken the spirit of it and done his own thing with it (like Naked Lunch, for example). What I can say, though, is that Cronenberg probably wouldn’t have touched this if the source material wasn’t already something which he responds to on an artistic level and it would be true to say that it fits nicely into his oeuvre and is especially in tune with his earlier works, although actual bodily decay/mutation is not an issue for the characters in this one.
Set in a world where the rich can rise or fall in a day due to the instability of the economy, a rich power player called Erik Packer, who looks a bit of a thug actually (Who the heck is Robert Pattinson? He looks like Tarantino and you just want to punch him.), embarks on a quest to be driven in his deluxe limo downtown to get his haircut... a journey which will take him all day and into the night and see his fortunes fall due to, and I paraphrase the words of one character, his inability to predict the random elements of nature within the patterns of the stock market figures, as represented metaphorically by the discovery of his asymmetrical prostate. During his day he plays host to numerous visitors both in his limousine and in various interior spaces, while worrying about a “credible death threat” and getting the pretty-boy veneer stripped from him as he shows his true thuggish nature by the end of the piece.
For a road movie, it’s a pretty claustrophobic one with the majority or the film (if not all of it, actually) shot in sets rather than locations (as far as I could tell). The visitors with whom he talks money or philosophy or poetry or has sex with include some fairly famous names giving fine performances (Juliette Binoche and Samantha Morton, to name two) and for the most part the script is quite dense and I’d normally find this pretty interesting but, I have to say, I spent a lot of my time in front of this movie feeling kinda bored. The attitude of the main character didn’t help this lethal malaise that infected me as I started watching his movie but, at the same time, I got the impression I was watching a future classic in that it so neatly dovetails into that “easy-to-decode” early Cronenberg phase. Well, I say early but I saw traces of eXistenZ in it too... in addition to some of his earlier works like Videodrome and the remarkable Crash.
Talking of which, I think the choice of lead actor, or at least his style of acting, is a definite shift for Cronenberg in that he used to use some pretty inspired and charismatic actors to portray the kind of cooled down, emotionally vacant characters he often populates his films with... James Woods, James Spader, Debbie Harry and Jeff Goldblum spring instantly to mind. Pattinson seems to throw less fire into his role but I don’t think that makes him any worse an actor than those other guys because of it. Contrarily, and possibly even serendipitously, Pattinson’s lack of presence may be the exact kind of stripped down perspective that both he and Cronenberg are going for in this one... and if that’s the case then it might be because the last scene in this movie which the narrative leads to is such an intense, suspenseful one.
Following the eye stabbing of a VIP live on television, as seen in Erik Packer’s limousine, the director further re-enforces the unexpected and damaging properties of violence with a brutal, point blank slaying of an important regular character towards the end of the film. You will see it coming... but still you feel the injustice of the decision made, just as the person responsible will have to embrace the consequences of this act later on, towards the end of the film. This wariness around tools of violence is the way that Cronenberg sets the scene for the final act of the movie, which is a double header between Robert Pattinson and the remarkable actor Paul Giametti as the target and the assassin come face to face with each other in a run down apartment. Steven Spielberg used a similar emotional device in the opening of Jurassic Park, when the power of the dinosaurs is demonstrated with deadly results to ramp up and heighten audience expectation and anxiety when we see these beasties again, for instance. As did David Lynch when he introduced his audience to Sailor Ripley in Wild At Heart with that notorious, literally head-banging, opening. What this does for Cronenberg’s movie is it gives it a very intense edge that one minute either actor could shoot the other at any time during their long and twisty-turny conversation. This gets almost unbearable at times and makes me wonder if Pattinson isn’t such a bad actor after all, if he can credibly hold screen time against Giametti.
As I said earlier, Cronenberg’s obsession with physical decay and mutation is not mirrored in this movie but the story does concern itself with the gradual decline of the human mind after a day doesn’t quite go just as you’d expect it too. This is reflected in both protagonist and antagonist in the final scene and, frankly, if by that point you can still work out which one actually is protagonist and which is antagonist, then you’re doing well. This is also mirrored in the journey of the physical media the film is made up of, at least that’s what I thought, since the early shots of the terrain outside of the limousine look much like the fake, projected backdrop the director used deliberately in certain scenes of eXistenZ whereas, as Packer presumably gets poorer, everything starts to look a little more grimy and real... to the point where an incident leaves Packer messy and angry on the streets. The ramshackle set design of the place where Giametti’s character lives seems very much, to me at least, as an external projection of that “slow, body-horror mutation” that marked this director’s early works (or his early funny ones, if you will).
Another great thing which also harkens back to the early Cronenberg is the ending. I’ve been suckered in before with Cronenberg’s endings stopping a few seconds short of where you’d like them to end and he’s done exactly the same to me with this one. He puts you in a place where you are trying to figure out which of the two or three possible endings that Cronenberg has deftly lead you too will be the final, end game of the movie and... as the seconds drag on... your choices are suddenly taken away from you and I’ve definitely seen a few of his movies end in exactly the same way as this one did. It’s nice that there’s a certain symetry at work here... maybe Cronenberg’s prostate is less skewed than his main protagonist’s. Either way, it’s a nice way to finish and I certainly didn’t share the groan that the majority of the other six members of the audience, in the cinema that I saw it in, let out as a collective response to the commencement of the final credits.
If Cronenberg is your thing and you like his early work, especially Videodrome and eXistenZ, then you might like to give Cosmopolis a chance, although it has to be understood that my comparisons to these two works are not to be found in the surface details of the movie and if you look for them there then you will see no similarity, other than the very fluid, slow and steady camerawork that Cronenberg likes to view his ideas from. On the other hand, if you struggle with the emotional aspects of Cronenberg’s work usually, then you might be quite lost in this one since very few of the characters express themselves as being anything other than voyeurs to the events that are actually happening to them... and often don’t seem that present in the moment, getting drawn along in the wake of the cause and effect and ultimate downward spiral of... well... of following the flow of the money.
Personally I’m glad I saw this one but I have no idea if I could sit through it again... although I can see how his kind of movie could be best seen as a personal, individual experience with just the lone viewer and a DVD, as opposed to the normally preferred venue of the cinema. That is to say, Cosmopolis is a dish best served cold, perhaps?