“We still want what we want,” says 28 year old billionaire Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson). “We want a haircut.” The initial phrase doesn’t come off as a tautology, but a comically nightmarish declaration from an individual referring to himself in the first person plural. “We” don’t want anything in particular for itself, but all things unto what “we” want. What “we” want is not the object of desire for itself, but the fulfillment of “our” desire itself, irrespective of the object. When stripped bare, Cronenberg’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel of the same name is framed by this singular narrative action of Eric moving across “Manhattan” (or, a universalized city version of it) in his lavish stretch limousine to get a haircut at the barber shop. Yet, getting the haircut is mostly incidental within the scope of the film, just as the haircut itself doesn’t matter so much to Eric; rather, he wants what he wants, and, as such, the film unfolds like a drone-like surrealist drive through his crumbling, solipsistic world.
Eric’s fortune is derived from managing assets on the basis of stock speculation–reading abstract information. His drive across town is slow-moving because of heavy traffic stemming from the President of the United States being in town, and from the funeral procession of a famous Sufi rap artist. The long drive is no obstacle to Eric’s work day, because the luxury limousine is his functional office—loaded with bright computer screens and a variety of gadgets for any possible scenario (like, say, a daily prostate exam). The day is filled with meetings both in the car and out, and this particular business day is growing increasingly horrifying; Eric’s fortune is plummeting, anti-capitalist activists haunt him throughout the day, and he learns that there is a deadly threat against him. Against this ominous backdrop, each conversation in a series of meetings becomes a kind of meandering explication of his disintegrating self. You might say that the first person plural “we” is Eric’s corporate diversified self, represented by his Chief of Theory, Chief of Finance, Art Consultant, Chief of Technology, and his Chief of Security—all their to attend to Eric’s desires.
A handful of critics have reacted negatively to the film as lacking a coherent narrative, or as being a mess of ideas that doesn’t really have anything to say. But to fault the film in this way is, it seems to me, to miss the point. During one scene, a pair of anti-capitalist demonstrators terrorizes a restaurant by throwing a couple of rats in the air while chanting “a specter is haunting the world.” Later, a didactic subliminal message confirms what we could already surmise: the “specter” haunting the world is capitalism. Yet, perhaps the film—not quite coincident with its activists—suggests a more specific specter that is haunting the world. Immediately after the chanting demonstrators, Cronenberg cuts to a meeting back in the limousine between Eric and his “chief theorist,” Vija Kinsky (Samantha Morton). It’s notable that his Chief of Theory is the only one other than Eric who sits in his command center throne chair in the back of the limousine. In what seems an important conversation amidst a morass of ideas and counter-ideas, the Chief of Theory briefs Eric on the “current situation” as it relates to “the art of money-making.” The situation, she says, is that “wealth has become wealth for its own sake” and, therefore, “money has lost its narrative quality.”
Together, these two points–wealth for itself, and the loss of a narrative sense–seem essential to how the film unfolds, for Eric’s life lacks a kind of narrative sense precisely because he wants what he wants, or, he desires for the sake of his own desire. Which is to say, some of our best moral philosophers have suggested that narcissistic individualism narrows and flattens potential horizons of meaningfulness. For me, the most compelling way this is rendered in the film is in the repeated meetings Eric has with his new wife, Elise Shifrin (Sarah Gadon). Given the unique repetition of their meeting within the film’s structure of appointments, the newlyweds’ bizarre conversations become a kind of notable boundary marker amidst an unconventional plot—a slight indicator of significance en route to the barber shop. In his incisive review of the film for Notebook, Daniel Kasman makes a noteworthy comment regarding the film’s visual theme:
The subjects of the talks, as well as the mise-en-scène in general, principally dances around the severe abstraction late capitalism has introduced into life—or, at least, into the life of a very rich man, where numbers and screens, his head of security’s warnings about threats to his life, and, ultimately, the unrest that percolates through New York as the film goes on, all remains at a distant, intangible remove. The world is reduced to virtual communication and personal relationships to theory . . .
Kasman goes on to note a particular scene when Packer moves from his car to an adjacent cab where we first see Elise (notably, we’re not readily aware that it’s his wife–at first, it plays like just another meeting in his day, even if by chance). The shot is set up as if he is entering “a cinema screen, or a fantasy, or, indeed, move from one fantasy to another, from car to car, diner to diner, bedroom to bedroom.” Kasman’s analysis is noteworthy in considering not only how Eric’s wife is initially framed in the cab, but also in considering the very next scene featuring the two of them at breakfast. Most of the scene’s duration displays them as if behind a screen. As a commentary on the fantastical nature of their marriage, it’s a formal move with devastating implications.
It’s as if when Eric is in his limousine—buffered by security, computer screens, and other walls of data calculation—he is inhabiting what is real, or, he is taking up residence in an inverted world where he can manipulate situations from a safe distance; yet, when he is meeting with his wife, he is entering a fantasy world of contrived virtues like intimacy, transparency, and devotion. The film’s ironies and subtle humor unfold on the premise of wealthy techno-detachment. More money has always meant increased ability to isolate one’s self from others and the inherent accountability that close proximity to others facilitates; now, this ability to isolate one’s self is aided and encoded by ever-increasing technological possibilities.
Eric and Elise meet three times over the course of the day, and, as if to reinforce the humor of their detached marriage, these meetings occur at breakfast, lunch, and dinner (mealtime being that great potential meeting ground for fruitful interaction).
In the cab with Elise, Eric mentions nonchalantly, “Haven’t seen you in a while . . . I looked for you this morning.” This relational distance establishes what is characteristic of their manner of conversation: cool detachment. Eric then asks her to breakfast by making a self-satisfied quip marked with sexual innuendo; Elise, seemingly for the first time, notices his blue eyes. They have a peculiar chemistry, but it’s sympathy of mutual indifference—of casual remoteness. At breakfast, Eric sets the agenda: “Let’s talk about us.” For this marriage-behind-the-screen, talking “about us” means Eric wondering “when we’re going to have sex again,” while Elise wonders where his office is, and asks him, “What do you do, really?” In answer to her own question, it occurs to Elise that Eric is “dedicated to knowing.” Yes, a certain kind of knowing—an abstract knowing—just not the kind in which he knows his wife, however you want to parse “knowing” in the marital sense.
“You smell of sex,” Elise says to Eric at lunch—their second meeting in the film. Eric has just had sex in the limousine with his chief art consultant (Juliette Binoche). Eric’s an industrialist, and Elise is an artist; so it’s significant that he is having sex with his art dealer, who he’s just informed that he’d like to buy the Rothko Chapel and relocate it to his apartment—because he can. Eric remains insistent that Elise have sex with him, while Elise continues her cool reticence to the idea (“we’ve been married weeks—barely weeks!” she humorously replies). As if analyzing their mutual detachment, Eric computes, “We’re people in the world—we need to talk.” The dissonant nature of their conversational patterns continues when Elise mentions that they should go to a vacation spot that they’ve supposedly always talked about. “F*** the lake,” Eric retorts. “I thought we liked it there,” Elise says with seemingly feigned surprise at the discordance of their mutual pleasures and plans. And, toward the end of their lunch, Elise questions Eric’s purpose for the day: “Do you need a haircut?” Eric responds in a way that reemphasizes the nature of his desires: “I need anything you can give me.”
At dinner, Eric takes notice of what his wife is wearing, but the whole scene is darkly humorous in that he’s constantly charting—analyzing—what he’s doing as he’s doing it (“I’m noticing”… “I’m making conversation” . . . “I’m trying to make contact in the most ordinary ways”), so that the focus remains on himself. He’s wrapped up in his self-conscious assessment of the situation rather than, say, his wife. As he finishes an analysis of the importance of intimacy—how it’s important to notice clothes and mood—Eric is confronted by Elise, who, upon detection of more sexual deviance, asks him if it’s also important to notice “how they smell.” In a brief moment of vulnerability, Elise asks him, “Am I being too wifely?” and later confesses, “I can’t master indifference.” In a line of horrific humor, Eric exclaims in response, “This is good—we’re like people talking!” Of course, in their fantasy world, this is not good at all. To make matters worse, Elise discovers that Eric’s corporate empire is crumbling. As if a contractual business partner, Elise says she’ll “do all that she can to help,” but “as a couple—as a marriage—I think we’re done, aren’t we?”
In Eric’s and Elise’s fantasy world–where their desires have been abstracted into the equation of wanting what they want–the narrative possibilities are reduced. Relational distance begets incessant requests for sex, and suspicions of fidelity and office location; detached, self-obsessed conversations necessitate uneven dialogical terrain and constant conversation qua hyper awareness and analysis of how the conversation is unfolding; and a collapsing corporation means a collapsing marriage. Each of these conversations are essentially the same, because the self-enclosed individual has barricaded his or her self from not only narrative possibilities, but, indeed, the very sources of the self.
After Elise’s brief moment of mask-lifting, she ends her marriage. Eric has a similar moment of transparency with his security guard—and, a moment later, he shoots his protection in the head.
What’s remarkable about the film’s final, explosive back-and-forth between Eric and his former employee, Benno (Paul Giamatti), who wants to kill him, is the way in which it’s a form of intimacy that shatters the techno-capitalistic barrier between monolithic corporate billionaire and previously fired underling. It’s a confrontation between a higher-up and a person who would otherwise go unnoticed on Eric’s informational radar. Yet, it’s not a simple good guy/bad guy relationship between the two of them. Bitter Benno is undermined and shown to be a bit of a lunatic who sometimes utters wisdom and sometimes nonsense. The most significant subversion of Benno-as-victim is in the final moments of the film when Eric declares him just as guilty of being inconsiderate of other people. Eric laughs at the idea that Benno despises him out of some truly motivated concern for others. It’s a moment that I wish had been more emphasized in the film to suggest that the 99% is just as liable to fall into the traps of relative excess.
I’m still conflicted about the film’s final shot and fade-to-black. Benno, while holding a gun execution-style to the back of Eric’s head, confesses his essential problem—that he wanted Eric, and all that he represents, to save and heal him. But Eric is a walking dead man. The confession and illumination of Eric’s essential deadness elicits something stunning in the end of the film—a show of emotion from Eric in the form of a shed tear. To end on this moment gives me pause in criticizing Cronenberg’s divergence from the source material. Yet, earlier in the conversation, Benno confesses, “I want to kill you because I want to count for something in my own life.” Benno’s narrative sense has been reduced to the possibility of murdering Eric–it’s his only perceivable opportunity for significance. I can’t help but wonder if this sort of film needed to follow through on Benno’s claim—to allow narrative sense to be an alarming intrusion, a disturbing O’Connor-like revelation, into Eric’s self-obsessed world. In the dark, inverted world of Cosmopolis, one could argue that Eric’s intimate moment needed to be a deadly confrontation with consequence that is seen the whole way through.
Yet, perhaps it’s shocking enough in itself that Cronenberg refrains here from one of his characteristic body-horror moments. Even the slightest hint of genuine compassion is a signal that Eric’s desires might yet be calibrated so as to be freed from a being-for-self quality. Maybe with that last shedding of a tear from Eric, Cronenberg is leaving open the possibility for Eric—for us—to be shown “something more,” “something that [we] don’t know” so long as we’re consumed by ontological capitalism.