“Welcome. Scan. $$$. Credit or debit. Pay. Cash back. Okay to charge. Confirm. Your receipt. Thank you. Come again.”
This abridged version of a conversation I had this morning with a self-checkout vestibule and its debit card machine is hardly literature: just keywords of the self-involved exchange that have become part of the bread and butter required to purchase bread and butter.
In David Cronenberg’s latest film, the characters that inhabit the breathlessly insulated set pieces of the contempo-NYC that is Cosmopolis–bleary afternoon diners, empty bookstores, a dilapidated barbershop, and of course, that white long-stretch limousine in sluggish urban gridlock–speak in the same intonations one might have when retrieving money from a sidewalk ATM.
Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) is a young billionaire celebrity who needs a bodyguard at all times, even when he feels the urge to get a haircut. As he makes his way to his family barber across the city, a series of personalities infiltrate Packer’s limo, where a matchless intersection of technology, violence and philosophy slowly crumble toward a climax worthy of Camus, parting traffic for the familiar themes on which Cronenberg thrives. Hopelessly awkward human beings do sit across from, stare at, gesture to and blink beside each other, just like cash machines: in passwords and codes.
Of course, the screenplay’s actual dialogue–whole conversations lifted verbatim from the book by Don DeLillo–is far more poetic, fluid and, yes, humanized than your run-of-the-Visa swipe at the bank. And the commonality that transcends both types of chitchat (human and robotic alike) is that in Cosmopolis words operate like a kind of currency. In one particular scene, following a tryst with his art dealer (Juliette Binoche), she negotiates with Packer over a rare Rothko that ultimately has everything and nothing to do with the art itself.
As Rothko himself once said: “The subject of the painting is the painting . . .” So in Cosmopolis, the transaction of words and capital are one and the same, utilized in a search for meaning which simultaneously sheds light on an intrinsic sanctimony arguably reflective of real life: the more we use them, the less they mean. Later, and aware of this, its central character says to another, “We’re like people talking. Isn’t this how people talk.”
In that line alone, Pattinson proves his place in the cast, but only under the context that Cronenberg smartly exploits. Along with the shallow eyes and stiff expressions critics have condescendingly eye-rolled the young Brit over, his delivery services the character. He doesn’t particularly shine, but slightly sparkles as the film’s New Age techno-wizard, a Wall-Street-walking-in-daylight vampiric type, who can convincingly expatiate upon human doubts while intentionally leaving out the question marks.
But that doesn’t leave out the question, which was always rhetorical. The subject of the question is the question, so to speak.
Naturally, with dialogue that isn’t exactly chilling, but already chilled, audiences’ patience will be tested, even art houses’. Cronenberg has a celebrated history for adapting literary favorites (William S. Burroughs with Naked Lunch, J.G. Ballard with Crash), but here with Don DeLillo there’s a by-the-book reverence that can be understandably off-putting on screen–not too dissimilar from sitting in the pews of a cathedral where it’s less like people talking, more like mindlessly quoting from a text. For every audience member who finds it moving, you can already feel the brush of another reaching for the “Snooze” button. Then again, like religion, I guess it just boils down to how much you already believed walking in.