If David Cronenberg spent the ‘00s sublimating his body horror into a more realistic view of the carnage that can be and often is wrought on human flesh, the director pivoted once more at the top of the last decade, homing in fully on the psychological aspects that have long run through his work. Cosmopolis is as much thought experiment as narrative film, using its minimalist story of a rich man’s slow limo ride across a traffic-jammed city as the barest possible foundation upon which to build an extended series of philosophical debates and armchair psychiatrist self-diagnosis around the protagonist’s various levels of isolation.

The film begins with the camera tracking along a procession of identical limos, gleaming white in the sun as they wait outside a Manhattan brokerage firm. Eric Parker (Robert Pattinson), upon being told by his driver and bodyguard, Torval (Kevin Durand), that the president is in town and that roads are being closed all over, decides defiantly he wants to ride across the borough to get a haircut at his favorite salon. Parker’s strange, arrhythmic cadence of speech, unreservedly blunt but given to occasional circumlocution as he second-by-second updates the markets before going off on personal tangents about his sexual frustrations or things he wishes to buy, one of which is the Rothko Chapel.

As soon as Parker gets in his limo, he begins a series of encounters with underlings who just appear in his limo, summoned as if by magic. A currency speculator, Parker’s entire life is an endless stream of figures, and he has disappeared into that role, speaking as if he can see the streaming lines of code and market updates all around him, Matrix-style. “Why am I seeing things that haven’t happened yet?” he asks one of his assistants early on. A significant portion of dialogue is devoted to tracking a sudden crash in the Chinese yuan that threatens his investments, which induces some degree of anxiety in Parker, but no more than the various things weighing on his mind.

Pattinson plays Parker as a parody of a modern money-maker, someone so completely keyed in to his work that he tends to treat every conversation as a kind of presentation. A lifelong entrepreneur who is used to selling himself as much as trading in immaterial goods like money futures, Parker has the cold honesty of a Patrick Bateman and the endless hunger of a man who is almost never denied. Often, his assistants double as mistresses, so that business conversations abruptly turn into trysts, a blurred line made even fuzzier by how shamelessly Parker conducts personal matters, including a daily full-body medical check-up, complete with prostate exam, in front of an associate he ultimately flirts with.

And yet, there are rifts in his eerie calm from the start. Speaking to an extremely young analyst (Philip Nozuka), the 28-year-old boss starts to feel a quarter-life crisis come on as he looks at this man who looks like a child and notes, “I was always younger than everyone around me. One day that began to change.” The revelation of his daily checkups, though a comical exaggeration of the access to medical care that the rich have at the expense of others, compounds this anxiety of aging despite his youth and careful health regimen. More notably, Parker is a few weeks into an unconsummated marriage to an old-money heiress, Elise (Sarah Gadon), a marriage that already feels like it’s fallen into frosty decay despite the brevity of the relationship. The two meet up throughout the day in meetings that feel like pure chance, during which Parker keeps urging them to have sex though he seems distinterested in her and she can barely stand to be around him.

Though made so early in the 2010s, the film already feels like a throwback to the early days of digital camera experimentation that had cropped up during the Aughts, when the likes of David Lynch, Steven Soderbergh and Michael Mann used early movie-grade high-definition, if not standard-def, to explore the differences one got in images versus traditional celluloid film. By 2012, the digital landscape was already flattening into homogenized images with the same dark color filtering, the same over-sharp detail. Here, though, Cronenberg and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky over-exaggerate digital’s too-clean, too-processed nature. Textures have a smeary look to them, with unbalanced contrasts that make skin look so textured as to become reptilian, while movement has an overly smooth, hyperreal quality. Color balances are also strange, awkwardly balancing the cold, almost metallic tones of silver and white that digital offers while also showing off blotches of radiant color in certain objects or light reflections.

By foregrounding the elasticity of image that digital offers, Cronenberg further emphasizes the transparent falsity of the “Manhattan” projected outside the limo windows, adding an extra punch to the depiction of Parker as a man completely and utterly removed from the world around him even as class riots break out around the limo as a reminder of that world growing fed up with being ruled by the likes of him. It also pitches Cosmopolis as much as a strange journey of the mind as a physical progression. Drawing heavily from Don DeLillo’s source novel, Cronenberg engages in many of the author’s high-handed ruminations on modern capital. Most especially in a scene where Parker converses with Kinsky (Samantha Morton), his “Chief of Theory.” Shifting into talk that updates Marx for the information age, Kinsky notes “Money makes time. It used to be the other way around. Clock time accelerated the rise of capitalism. People stopped thinking about eternity and they began to concentrate on hours.” And in contrast to Parker’s regressed fears of an early death, Kinsky notes that in the age of everyone living online, “People will not die. People will be absorbed into new streams of information.”

In an amusing continuation of his previous film, Cronenberg uses the end of Parker’s journey for his haircut with a moment of Freudian regression that traces so many of his anxieties to his father, including the sheer terror of a sudden death from an undiagnosed condition that drives his otherwise coolly mandated physicals. Rather than end with this comical yet psychologically simple ending, the film then heads into an abrupt showdown with a disgruntled employee, Benno (Paul Giamatti), who looks like Parker’s portrait of Dorian Gray. Balding, out-of-shape and coated with a half-congealed layer of flop sweat, Benno mentions he has a toe fungus and looks like it’s spread to his whole body. Their confrontation could have resolved the ambient class war brewing throughout the movie, but instead the scene pivots to implicate a guy like Benno in a system he has only come to resent because he washed out of it. Benno, having gone insane from trying to enter Parker’s headspace to analyze the markets, ultimately ties the film back to Cronenberg’s modern-day sublimated body horror by noting that Parker tried too hard to find the patterns in currency when he should have seen his own asymmetrical prostate as a clue to life’s chaos.

For a guy who gets his body checked every day for warning signs, Parker has been completely unfazed by the riots that have erupted over the course of his day and the threats made on his life, and that holds true here as he and Benno ultimately have a debate that conflates their work in numbers analysis, their phobias and their respective lives into a running back-and-forth that despite its cerebral subject matter has the most naturalistic tone of any of the film’s dialogue. Cosmopolis ends on a cliffhanger as Benno decides whether to let Parker live, but his final refrain, “I wanted you to save me,” suggests the belated class consciousness in American public life is less the result of actual class analysis than yet another displaced Freudian idea, of all the neglected little people uncomprehendingly coming to terms with the fact that their social betters aren’t going to trickle that wealth down to them at all.

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