You will never catch me expressing the opinion that the world is, could be, or even should be "fair." Even so, one blazing symbol of universal injustice sticks in my craw. Why does the world shovel piles of money at the feet of directors like Gore Verbinski and (God help us) M. Night Shyamalan for them to set fire to, while a true artist like Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg is forced to engage in the cinematic equivalent of turning tricks on a street corner to get his tiny yet brilliant movies funded?
As a young cineaste, I eagerly watched as his career developed. (One of the early tragedies of my life was a paper I wrote on Videodrome my senior year, college. My professor praised it as "ready to be cleaned up and submitted for publication." Unfortunately, in those days when we TYPED papers, I lost the only copy. My potential career as a film analyst derailed!)
After Scanners he suffered a huge flop with Videodrome (a film that later came to be regarded both as a cult hit and as a masterpiece at places like the film-studies departments of Harvard and Northwestern, if you can believe it.) he came back swinging with a great Stephen King adaptation of The Dead Zone. Then The Fly, his biggest hit and probably most gut-punching film followed by the masterful Dead Ringers. (And best Oscar moment is history was Jeremy Irons, getting the award for Reversal of Fortune, including David Cronenberg in his thanks.)
Then something strange happened, Cronenberg shied away from the genre that had made his name and began to do artier movies. Naked Lunch, M. Butterfly, The disappointing Crash, the excellent eXistenZ, and then Spider in which Miranda Richardson may have given the best performance the in history of cinema. (Ralph Fiennes wasn't so bad, either.)
In an interview following the release of Spider, Cronenberg spoke of how difficult it had become to get his most recent films made, often spending his lunch hour on the phone desperately trying to beat some money out of investors to finish the film. Frustrated, he became a "gun for hire" of sorts directing the quite good A History of Violence and the occasionally cheesy but pretty bad-ass Eastern Promises. (Watch for a truly amazing knife fight.)
For Cronenberg fans, it was often frustrating. The filmmaker who Northwestern University Professor Thomas Gunning once labeled "one of the most important directors working today" never quite rose to the level of acceptance of a Wes Anderson or Coen Brothers. Critics could never forgive Cronenberg for his early forays into horror and were put off by his obsession with the body which often manifested in his films as graphic sex and violence. Mass audiences could not connect with his truly original vision the way they could with a Fly or Dead Zone.
Of the two, Cosmopolis is the film you not only may have missed, but are almost statistically certain to have missed. Which is too bad. It's a pretty amazing.
Based on the novel by Don Delillo, it starred Robert Pattison (yes that Robert Pattison) as Eric Packer a billionaire currency trader traveling crosstown in his state-of-the art limousine through nightmarish New York City traffic in order to get a haircut he doesn't need. Along the way, he makes a very risky play with the Chinese yuan that burns his fortune, business and life down.
The film, oddly enough, won the 2012 MTV Movie Brawl beating Breaking Dawn, The Dark Knight Rises and The Hunger Games. Cronenberg himself, in an MTV News interview, expressed being "tickled" and hoped the honor would bring people to the cinema to actually see the film.
As a fan, I shared his hope, wondering if this was the film that (like The Fly) would break Cronenberg back into the mass consciousness.
Cosmopolis bombed. Hard. Like a belly-flop off the high board. Scratch that. Like a belly-flop off the top of Niagara Falls.
With a budget of 19,000,000, has only earned 6,000,000 or so back. It made less than a million in America, and just over half a million in the United Kingdom. (Not surprisingly, France and Italy were the film's strongest markets.)
The bigger indie-film distributors stayed away. In droves.
And this is somewhat understandable. Cosmopolis is not an easy film. It's one of those films no one seems to know what to do with. On the surface it's a sterile, alienating work in which nothing much happens. The dialogue is stilted, mannered, constructed as opposed to spoken. (Writing the script, Cronenberg simply took all the dialogue from the novel, set it into screenplay form, made a few location tweaks and added stage directions.) There are few outward emotions expressed. It seems like little more than a series of philosophical discussions. And the ending. Whooo. Talk about unresolved.
But under the surface, it's a tale of despair and ruin. The trip across town is not merely a drive through nightmare traffic, it is the story of a man who has reached the end of his rope and is slowly, by degrees, deliberately destroying his life, a destruction echoed in the physical disintegration of his limo.
The limo is one of the keys to the film, a sterile, soundproof environment that Cronenberg wanted to glide through the streets. You never see the limo bump or jostle, as if it's not a car on the road, but a vehicle floating in an alternate dimension.
I had the pleasure of attending a screening at the fabulous Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, New York where the filmmaker himself was present to discuss the movie. (The museum has "adopted" Cronenberg and he makes an appearance with every new movie.)
Even so, Cronenberg's praise of Pattison as an actor could not be more lavish. Not only did he deliver a great performance, but in his MTV News interview, Cronenberg speaks of Pattison's attitude on set as "a ray of sunshine." Since Pattison is Cosmopolis, his performance could not be more crucial to the film. (Pattison's American accent was so good, that when he began speaking with his native English accent between takes, Paul Giamatti thought the young actor was "fucking with him" and went to Cronenberg to complain.)
Unfortunately, the casting of Pattison may have been the movie's Achilles heel. The art-cinema world that embraced Keira Knightley, Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen in A Dangerous Method may have been put off by a film starring the guy who'd played the vampire heartthrob in Twilight. Which kind of sucks, because Pattison is truly great in Cosmopolis, revealing himself as an actor of real depth.
And it's not like the teenagers who'd given the film the win in the Movie Brawl avoid the picture, they just never had a chance to see it. Whatever the reasons, the film received an extremely limited release in the US and UK and now lingers on Netflix streaming. Thankfully, Cronenberg's next film Map of the Stars is already in post-production. No four year wait this time.
Cosmopolis is a hard movie, it demands the audience look deeper than it's slick surface to find the raw emotion hidden there, but once you do, it's well worth the effort.
And it has the two most shocking gunshots in movie history.