David Cronenberg’s horror-show visual vernacular isn’t exactly the obvious lexicon for reimagining Don Delillo’s famously literary prose, but this gross, improbable collision of styles – a bewildering intersection between the maximal and the minimal – accrues a near-omnipotent surrealism over the course of Cosmopolis’ dead-by-day car-ride odyssey. Set primarily in the limo of a youthful billionaire (played with a sullen, zombie-like, quasi-ironic, and entirely fitting detachment by Robert Pattinson) during a car ride expedition to a hair-cuttery on the other end of New York, Cosmopolis morphs into a prismatic, unsettled excursion by its end that doubles as long-day-of-the-soul and a fantastical tryst with absurdity and the essential entropy of life.
Unearthing itself as it goes through a plethora of initially gratuitous, excruciating limo-bounded conversations between Pattinson’s Eric Packer and whoever crosses his path, Cronenberg’s ethereal, disembodied direction (withheld at a stark remove) suffuses every word with malice and earthlessness as the context or embedded meaning of the words floats away to be replaced with the debased purity of endless, droning sound. Not unlike an inverse Tati, who similarly relied on intonation and cadence as discrete perceptual, sensory experiences but accentuated them with a decidedly more bubbly, buoyant mood, Cosmopolis counterposes the cosmic, acrid in-limousine verbal power-plays with the swirling netherverse of the outside world. Visible figments of the exterior realm outside Pattinson’s limo tacitly revoke the world-encompassing importance of his conversations, suggesting the insular nature of the very words he wields like private shields from the physical action of the public realm.
The import of the continual flow of words is constantly, fastidiously undercut by the refracted, askew vision of life beyond the limousine, a life not experienced by the men and women who callously evaluate the world from within the car even as they visually exist at a remove from it. Cronenberg, thus, animates and reforms the dialogue, shifting the limbo of endless wordplay away from the relatively antiseptic stageplay it could have been and turning the camera into an active participant in the conflict, rather than an addendum to it.
Representational questions of wealth and class abound, but the most audacious and artistically challenging subject interrogated in the film is the applicability of literary form in a cinematic medium. The shiftless, inhospitable dialogue and artless performances, far more than emphasizing the artifice of wealth, bullet-point what to Cronenberg is a sort of bourgeois affect implicit in Western cinema that hides data-point filmmaking with a thin gauze of ersatz emotion. Cosmopolis has the gall to acknowledge the mechanics that go into the construction of emotion, siphoning away the appended affect and turning his dialogue into a barren game of pure recitation, reading words as data points and laughing in our face for expecting more from a film produced by a culture obsessed with inflexible data and materialism above fluid humanity. Rather than eliding the literary nature of his material – as most cinematic adaptations of novels do – Cronenberg accentuates its literary qualities until he bends and breaks the dramatic capabilities of the literature, revealing how inadequate this sort of dialogue is to a cinematic medium’s expression of life.
Cronenberg’s out-of-body filmmaking is corroborated by Ronald Sanders’ corrosive editing and the acrid, metallic caliber of Peter Suschitzky’s ghostly, corporately digital cinematography. The artificial, technical sheen afforded by the digital camera saps the lifeblood and grain from the visuals much like Pattinson’s mannequin-esque performance revokes any pungent humanity in his character’s soul. The film’s off-handed excursions into the bodily realm – a mid-trip, impromptu prostate examination most notably – are all subsumed within a plastic, spectral vision of cyber-life.
Cronenberg spent the first two decades of his career (before going “respectable” circa the turn of the century) perusing the physical borders and conceptual frontiers of human flesh extracted by technology and driven to its limits. In Cosmopolis, a film for the modern era, the fleshy goodness of Cronenberg’s terrifying vision of distorted human flesh persuaded into whatever shape he wishes is rendered inadequate and even quaint. It’s as though the director is aware that any transformation of the flesh he can mastermind isn’t anything compared to the more nebulous dehumanization that humanity has already sabotaged itself with (a dehumanization given a tactility in the walls of the limousine Cronenberg explores as if trying to escape from a self-locked cell).
Complaints that Cronenberg’s film is no less antiseptic than the lifestyle it critiques are both beside-the-point (when anemia is the point of the film) and inaccurate in light of the perverse aura suggested in Cronenberg’s almost carnal excavation of the limo’s crevices and orifices. This street-bound Nautilus – slashing through New York traffic like a machete until the bedlam of life ensnares it in the web of the outside world – transforms into a self-actualizing punchline every time Cronenberg unveils a new quality-of-life tool that affords Pattinson a new opportunity to discuss society or go to the bathroom without leaving the confines of his chrome shield. The shadow-like outside world, intimated primarily through fleeting flickers of spectral shapes passing by windows rather than glimpsed-head on, evokes the peripheral vision of life nearly hidden from view for the 1% but always creeping around the back of their mind, reminding them of their chilly indifference to a world that erupts into fire on a moment’s notice.
Even the impacted absurdity of the inciting event is food for dour hysteria. Packer’s vague, inexplicable desire to locate one specific barbershop, and his inability to even consider the egotism of believing that the world around him will freeze as his limo parts the red sea around it, becomes a continual refrain of insanity as he refuses to accept his subservience to the world no matter how tormented the film around him grows. Perhaps it’s because the redness of the human water around him is bloodied and battered only as a suggestion of the very life the pallid Packer lacks; he arrives at his destination at great expense, but it is he who is frozen in a state of torpor.
Only God Forgives
No one would be remiss for failing to cotton to Nicolas Winding Refn’s self-aggrandizing but not always self-aware Jean-Pierre Melville riff Drive. Debased by the smell of adolescent romanticism and filmmaking that appears, five years later, to have been too stuffily pre-determined to really set fire, that particular post-modern Prometheus was nonetheless abetted by a whiff of youthful indiscretion that covered up every calculated shot with insouciance and energy. Although it was not nearly Refn’s debut feature, the cosmic confidence of the piece made the film seem like the raving rantings of a first-time filmmaker achieving, with all apologies to my French, a raging erection with every single shot.
With the film’s too-pat follow-up, Only God Forgives, that creeping stench of over-determined mysticism has achieved full-on halitosis. Unmitigated in its excessive, cascading pure confidence to the point of blood-spattered obsolescence, Only God Forgives is a noir riff so clouded in its own self-importance that it can’t even spend a minute to remember what goal the noir serves for it in the first place. The somewhat naïvely mythical caliber of Drive, then the result of an ingénue trapped in a world where naturalism and cogency had eliminated the role of gleeful abandon in filmmaking, was liberating. With Only God Forgives the weightlessness of Drive is now a congealed mass of self-satisfactory urban gothic weight like a referendum on nothing but the bloody stub of good taste the film leaves in its wake. Refn’s visible arousal is now ensnared in the realm of erectile dysfunction.
Played in a post-mortem patois, the downright clinically dead Only God Forgives worships the altar of arbitrary, superficial resplendence to the debasement of any and all concerns outside of its wheel-house. A nocturnal, nearly plotless parade of inner-city environs more than a narrative proper (which is hardly an invaluable starting point for a film), Only God Forgives doubles-down on a full-palette of neon-rage reds and Vantablack emptiness to the point of self-parody. If Drive was a child’s backyard-playtime fantasia of heroism, Only God Forgives is a hollowed-out nightmare where Bangkok is an Orientalist toybox for desecration and destruction.
Returning human play-doh (to be persuaded into whatever shape Refn wants) Ryan Gosling infuses his character Julian, ostensibly the most adjusted among a cartoonishly Faulknerian family, with his trademark aura of sleep-walking vacancy, so fitting in Drive to embody a cavernous archetype rather than a human being and as effective here at playing to Refn’s fetishistic investment in the vainglorious triviality of his images. It’s excruciatingly mystifying and empty, I suspect as an intention rather than a mistake in what amounts to a film enitrely about the inflection point where blood curdles into molasses and the humans are deadened, pantomimed figures in Refn’s poet-montage. Frankly, the film’s commitment to its own inscrutability and devoutly enervated cadaverousness is so abominably committed that I cannot in good faith label it anything other than essential cinema.
It’s also bad cinema, maybe, but there’s an impossible beauty to the proceedings, enlightening and stymying in equal measure, that elevates it to the level of gothic anti-cinema, intimately and perversely aware of its own crippling repetition and inadequacy as a conventional narrative or, perhaps, even an object capable of accruing meaning or import over time at all. The essential nihilism of so many noir characters, so palpable in other films, is sublimated to the level of a film that embodies a cinema-of-nihilism. In its very parade of images and sounds devoid of import, Only God Forgives is nihilistic in the caliber of its cinematic construction as well as the more common, and superficial, realm of character. It’s a hopeless object, an assemblage of effervescent abstracted images and malevolent sounds (by Cliff Martinez) failing to realize that they are in search of a greater purpose that eludes them, and doesn’t even exist. Excuse me for being nihilist if, because of its very worthlessness, I find the film a tad worthwhile, if only as a grotesque palate-cleanser. Say what you will about it, but Only God Forgives does not lack for commitment; it is a true gargoyle-parade dredging up the gruesomeness of the dankest corners of cinema and comparing battle wounds with other films. Whatever your flick, have confidence that Refn’s will win out in the end.