David Cronenberg is no stranger to tricky adaptations — having previously filmed such allegedly unfilmable books as Naked Lunch, Crash, and Spider — so it’s interesting to see him be diligently faithful to source material. The incidents and dialogue in Cosmopolis come practically verbatim from Don DeLillo’s slim 2003 novel about a young asset manager’s surreal, Ulysses-like car ride across Manhattan — so much so that the film at times feels like an experiment, an exploration of how prose translates to film. That’s not to say the film is frivolous; indeed, it is one of the director’s better movies of recent years, even if it is occasionally maddening.
Neither novel nor film is meant to be realistic, of course: Hyper-intelligent, hyper-rich, hyper-controlling, and hyper-alienated Wall Street type Eric Packer’s (Robert Pattinson) journey across town in his space-age, vacuum-packed, and ready-for-the-apocalypse stretch limo is clearly a symbolic one, and the various women and doctors and colleagues who step into his world not so much characters as representatives of various outside forces. Dialogue like, “What happens to all these stretch limousines that prowl the throbbing city all day long?” would be laughable in a naturalistic context, but Cronenberg makes sure to give us an opening scene where Eric and his chief of security stand erect like statues and have an arch, self-consciously stiff exchange about where they’re going, just so we understand what we’re about to get into. (“We need a haircut.” “We’ll hit traffic that speaks in quarter inches.”)
Interestingly enough, ruthless fidelity can be its own filtering device. Aside from a couple of significant changes towards the end of the story, Cronenberg has made one major conceptual alteration, though it may seem minor at first. DeLillo was writing in the wake of 9/11, and the sense of doom hanging over his story — even though its ostensible setting was April 2000, the eve of the tech-bubble bust — is a foundational, existential one. Cronenberg transports the story ahead a few years so that the specter haunting his film is the 2008 financial crisis. (In so doing, he also changes the currency that Eric is shorting from Japanese Yen to Chinese Yuan, a shift that probably says a lot more about our world today than either book or film.) It’s not an inconsequential change: DeLillo’s novel wasn’t ultimately about Wall Street or finance or even really capitalism so much as it was about the human need for control in a world whose main trait was entropy. The book’s narrative was essentially a dialogue between Eric’s cerebral urges and the dumb fact of his uncontrollable bodily needs — when he wasn’t trying to control currency markets or figure other people out, he was eating, fucking, and, at one notable point, having his prostate examined.
Cronenberg keeps many of those narrative elements, including the through-line of mind vs. body. But DeLillo’s novel reads more like self-critique than anything else: It’s a portrait of a genius trying to game the future and human behavior itself, even as he shuts himself off from the rest of the world. There’s an undeniable echo with the author, himself a bit of a control freak and mild recluse. Intentionally or not, Cronenberg doesn’t quite capture that universality or that pathos. He feels more distant to Eric’s alienation: If the book was a kind of apologia, the film at times feels like a revenge story, a tale of comeuppance.
Nothing wrong with that, of course. If I find DeLillo’s book to be more touching and profound, that’s my problem, and shouldn’t necessarily be a knock on the film, which works (for the most part) on its own terms. Pattinson has just the right level of serenity mixed with physical discomfort: He moves gracefully, and yet we can sense his head bobbing ever so slightly, his hands fidgeting ever so noticeably. His calm is an aspirational one; we can tell he feels none of it.
Cronenberg also manages to create a compellingly sensuous world within the claustrophobic setup. (Once upon a time, this director used to be cinema’s foremost poet laureate of claustrophobia.) The inside of Eric’s cork-lined limo really does look like something otherworldly floating through the big city, organic and new-fleshy in its own way — more cocoon than bunker. In this, the director also manages to approximate, in some small way, the tactile force of DeLillo’s language. And he makes sure to keep the camera uncomfortably close to his actor’s face, to heighten the internalized quality of the tale. But for all that, he doesn’t quite manage to get into Eric’s head, and it’s hard, in the end, to feel anything for a character so opaque. Cosmopolis is often beautiful, but at times it feels like a movie sealed off from itself.