David Cronenberg adapts Don DeLillo's novel, about a banker who spends his entire day navigating Manhattan from the safety of his tricked-out limousine. It's a big extended metaphor, and while it throws commentary in every direction, it's a very difficult film that is also very difficult to like. But it causes you to think, and one can come to like it quite a lot in retrospect for its commitment and intelligence.
From our good buddy David Cronenberg comes this adaptation of the "unadaptable" Don DeLillo novel, the first screenplay Cronenberg has written himself since eXistenZ. It features Twilight star Robert Pattinson as a big-time New York banker who spends the day traveling through Manhattan in his tricked-out limousine. New York magazine had a snarky quote in their graph-thing about how he spends all day in his limo "as no real rich New Yorker does." Well, way to miss the point, New York magazine, as it's obviously an extended metaphor for this guy leading a protected, hermetic life, traveling through the wreckage of our economic meltdown without having to interact with it. So, interesting idea. How does it pan out?
The credits appear over a canvas where a Pollock-like drip painting is being created. We'll come back to this. Then a quote, about "the rat became a unit of currency." Watch and listen for lots of different mentions of rats throughout, as well. So Pattinson appears as Eric, who wants to travel across town to get a haircut, but is told that traffic is snarled because the president is in town. "Which president?" he asks. Also note that a "haircut," in financial slang, refers to losing a great deal of money in the markets. Eric has just lost a great deal of money, and may or may not be bordering on personal financial collapse. Meantime, we notice that he sits in a virtual throne at the back of his limo, with screens that display financial data and news reports, a liquor bar, a hole in the floor that he can urinate through, everything he needs to be master of the universe from his little mobile control room.
But the whole movie doesn't take place in his limo. He gets out to have breakfast with his wife at a diner. She seems creeped out by him, and we find has been refusing sex. Soon he is back in his limo, having sex with Juliette Binoche, who lays on the floor when finished and caresses Eric's shoe. They say things like "any assault on the borders of perception is going to seem threatening." He reminds her that she once said (something to the effect of) "There's nothing as sexy as talent wasted," and she responds "What did I mean by that?" They discuss that he wants to buy the Rothko chapel, which is a one-of-a-kind chapel featuring a set of Rothko paintings. She says "it should be available to the public" and he responds "so let the public buy it."
Further up the road, he lets in his financial advisor, who he speaks to while receiving a rectal exam. She watches, grinding her water bottle into her crotch. We learn that Eric has a doctor visit him every day, and is somewhat hypochondriacal. He learns, to his discomfort, that his prostate is "asymmetrical." Later he lets in Samantha Morton as a sort of financial philosopher, who says things such as "all wealth has become wealth for its own sake... money has lost its narrative quality." He is at a restaurant when protesters break in, flinging dead rats, and shout "a specter is haunting the world!" Eric travels through a street protest, obviously influenced by Occupy Wall Street, and stays inside and protected as protesters spray-paint his limo and wave dead rats outside his window. He sees a man setting himself on fire outside, and his philosopher comments "It's not original. It's appropriated."
Turns out there has been a "credible threat" on Eric's life. He ends up in possession of a big, high-tech gun. Eric gets a pie in his face from a protester, a reference to Rupert Murdoch receiving a pie in the face as a protest. The remnants remain on Eric's face for the rest of the film. He finally gets his haircut, the barber saying he "has never seen such ratty hair on a human." The movie ends with Eric finally meeting the man who wants to kill him, and their having a long talk, or rather, talking past each other, as Eric has done with almost everyone in the film. The ending credits show Rothko paintings.
When it's over, you don't feel good. For a movie set almost entirely inside a limo, it is still very much a Cronenberg film, with his pet issues of body horror and decay, and for bravely being largely unpleasant. It is not a likable, or enjoyable film, in such a way that you credit Cronenberg for sticking to his art without worrying about entertaining anyone. Frankly, I did expect just simply LIKE it more, and to be in on the satire, or even be able to follow a common satirical thread through. But it remains consistently alienating, and chilly. My friend walked out saying "I thought there would be a consistent metaphor," but it doesn't supply one, and one walks out a bit frustrated, having to think about it, but without an easy way in. Of course, the banker in the limo traveling through the world but not a part of it is a metaphor, but other than that--what's going on? It all seems like a mess.
So I thought overnight, and went through ye olde film comprehension tricks--what is the first shot? The last shot? The credits?--and that's where I think the answer lies. The opening credits show the Pollock-like drip painting, and I think that is the central metaphor for the structure of the movie: It is going to throw out a bunch of statements that don't necessary relate clearly to each other, but form an overall picture when taken as a whole. Thus all of the seemingly senseless statements and vignettes all give a little hint of meaning--people are philosophizing about money, people have lost emotional outrage, people are performing extremely intimate acts in public, people are living with threats on their lives, rich people are hermetically sealed off from protests, etc.--all kind of come together to form a larger worldview about where we are today in terms of economic inequality and the emotional lives of the rich.
The other thing that came to mind was the work of fellow Canadian Edward Burtynsky, who does large-scale photographs depicting how the Earth is being transformed. But he never comes out and editorializes any of his work, which would seem, on the surface, to have a clear environmentalist bent. in the excellent documentary about him, Manufactured Landscapes, he is asked why he never makes a direct statement saying what the photos mean, and he responds that if he did, people could just dismiss it, and that would be that. I think it's similar here: If Cronenberg were making a movie that boiled down to "Rich people are morally-corrupt and out of touch," then Fox news would bash it, the Huffington Post would love it, and the whole thing would be forgotten, or worse, you'd see it knowing precisely HOW to see it (and thus not really seeing it). The way it is, you walk out of it confused and disturbed, which is a much higher level of engagement with it than if you already knew it was saying thus and such.
So should you see it? Yes. Will you like it? Probably not. But it's great to know that someone still has the courage to put out really challenging, powerful films that don't worry about being likable.
If you like challenging films and are somewhat politically engaged.