Unless pulled off perfectly—which isn’t easy to do—rear projection gives scenes a slightly unreal quality, whether it’s meant to or not. That’s never more apparent than in films that use the effect for driving sequences, where the action outside the car usually looks slightly, or often not-so-slightly, out of sync with the world inside the vehicle. The technique isn’t much needed in the digital age, but David Cronenberg uses it—or something that looks much like it—to great effect in the early scenes of Cosmopolis, his adaptation of Don DeLillo’s short novel about a young tycoon’s long, slow, eventful limo ride across a gridlocked Manhattan. Inside, it’s a sealed-off luxury nest of plush seating, blinking consoles, chilled beverages, and TVs. Outside waits an unfiltered, chaotic world beyond the control of pushbuttons and touchscreens. Cronenberg makes them look like two realities because they effectively are two realities, albeit realities destined to collide.
And since the closed-off, mobile world provides nearly all that life requires, why ever leave it? Cosmopolis’ billionaire protagonist (Robert Pattinson) initially seems content to stay put in a place high-tech enough to allow him to keep track of his business, and roomy enough that he can both continue an ongoing affair with his art dealer (Juliette Binoche) and receive his daily checkup, a routine that includes both an EKG—the limo’s luxuries include built-in medical equipment—and a prostate exam. Besides, the world outside is in a state. Anti-capitalist protesters fill streets in which traffic has slowed to the crawl, thanks to the twin inconveniences of a presidential visit and the funeral of Brutha Fez, a Sufi hip-hop star beloved by the masses and by Pattinson. (At one point, he boasts of having two private elevators that he selects depending on his mood: One pipes in Erik Satie and moves at one-quarter speed, while the other plays only Fez’s music.)
Yet the rest of the world has a pull of its own. Pattinson keeps running into his wife (Sarah Gadon) of less than a month. But they seem more like strangers than spouses, and the more he presses her to resume—or maybe just begin—having sex with him, the further she slips away. Clad in a dress not too far off from the color of her skin, she seems almost more spirit than body, but it’s earthly desire that draws him toward her, and toward other stops along the way: a diner invaded by protesters carrying dead rats; a hotel room for yet another tryst; and his final destination, the barbershop of his childhood neighborhood. Each turns out to be a station on a journey down. Having bet, and lost, against the direction of the Chinese yuan, he watches his fortune dwindle and disappear over the course of the day, treating his ruin with the same outward impassiveness he treats everything else.
The cipher-like qualities that helped make Pattinson a star in the Twilight movies serve him well here. He’s unknowable to those around him, and maybe to himself, but he plays a type familiar to Cronenberg movies, the sort of hero the director finds even when adapting others’ work: a man driven by the desire to be consumed by the forces he fears. Just as Cronenberg’s feature debut, Shivers, gave body to all manner of swirling 1970s sexual anxiety, in Cosmopolis, Pattinson lives in a world where his fears manifest in the form of protests in the street, and the “credible threat” to his safety that his imposing security chief (Kevin Durand) repeatedly mentions. His fears are also addressed, more obliquely, in the film’s clipped, heightened dialogue, much of it taken directly from the pages of DeLillo’s book.
That works in the film’s favor most of the time, but not all. Though some of the exchanges sound a bit page-bound, more often, the pairing of Cronenberg and DeLillo plays like a meeting of simpatico minds. Cosmopolis is rich in dry, dark comedy that never defuses a mounting sense of dread, a mix of elements familiar to both the writer and director. Multitasking, Pattinson combines a rectal exam with a business meeting, hunching nude over an adviser (Emily Hampshire) who is flushed and sweaty from her morning jog. The scene looks like a parody of sex until the erotic undercurrents start to overwhelm the awkwardness. Even in that unusual moment and that artificial environment, the needs of the body assert themselves. Later, he and yet another adviser (Samantha Morton) calmly discuss the finer points and contrasting principles of capitalism and anarchy while protesters spray paint his window. Pattinson and Morton are safe to pursue their philosophical conversation as long as the boundaries hold, but they clearly can’t hold forever.
Neither, unfortunately, can the film sustain its odd, unsettling tone. It generates a lot of tension by inching forward as the world falls apart around it in ways that often look like scenes from last year’s news. (Though DeLillo published Cosmopolis in 2003 and set it against the bursting of the Internet bubble in 2000, the year remains unspecified here and Occupy and its emphasis on the widening gulf between the ultra-rich and everyone else echoes throughout the movie.) But as Pattinson nears the bottom—both of his fortune, and to all appearances, his sanity—Cronenberg has to take the film somewhere, emptying out into a confrontation between Pattinson and a disgruntled former employee (Paul Giamatti) that never fully ties together all that’s come before. Cronenberg turns a difficult, sometimes frustrating book into a difficult, sometimes frustrating movie, though one with many of the same rewards as its source material: a glimpse into what it’s like to have reached the top, and to have found there only the perverse urge to plummet back down.