It was an unlikely inspiration on David Cronenberg’s part to cast Twilight heartthrob Robert Pattinson as the lead of Cosmopolis: 28-year-old Eric Packer, a billionaire asset manager who’s so detached from ordinary experience he’s more than a little creepy. Based on a 2003 Don DeLillo novel, the movie depicts one day in Eric’s life, as he experiences a steep, steep drop in his fortunes — and in fact engineers his own spectacular downfall.
Cosmopolis is hardcore Cronenberg, all but guaranteed to repel a mainstream audience, regardless of the star’s name on the marquee or DVD case. But Cronenberg didn’t resort to stunt casting just to raise the dough for the movie; casting Pattinson turned out to be a shrewd move. (Cronenberg knows how to look at actors with imagination. His jarring use of Jeremy Irons in 1988’s Dead Ringers — taking the actor far, far away from the sort of art-house fare he could have coasted on — was probably the best thing that ever happened to Irons as an actor.)
Like many a Cronenberg protagonist, Eric Packer lives at the extreme edge of possibility. Money and technology have propelled him to something like a new, or at least heedlessly modern state of being. Small wonder that even basic human responses in his dealings with other people, let alone anything like ethical or moral behavior, are of little concern to him.
With that in mind, it’s funny to consider how many of the same qualities that make Pattinson the right actor to play a centuries-old vampire also make him ideal for Eric: the ‘wasted’ body language; the mediagenic good looks and dissolute air of the princeling who has experienced far too much in too few years; and the not-quite-there gaze, suggesting that even while he’s talking to you Eric’s focus is elsewhere, on a worldwide slipstream of numbers. (A few lines of dialogue late in the movie, though taken from DeLillo’s novel, even play like an in-joke about Pattinson’s most famous role.)
I don’t mean it as a diss toward the actor to write that the way Cronenberg utilizes Pattinson is reminiscent of Robert Bresson’s use of his actors (or “models,” as he called them): Cronenberg uses the actor because he brings just the right affect to the part, consciously or not. Pattinson has even told one interviewer, “David used the takes where I didn’t know what I was doing.” Years from now Pattinson might be credible playing an ordinary Joe, but that’s certainly not what he suggests now. Particularly in the early scenes of Cosmopolis, he projects an aura of mordantly amused celebrity. It’s part of what makes him a better fit for the cipher-prodigy Eric than any other young actor who comes to mind.
There has been some cackling online about how Twilight fans are likely to have their minds blown if they catch their fave star in Cosmopolis. But assuming they aren’t freaked out (or bored silly) by the movie, perhaps they’ll be reassured to see that their idol may have a future beyond signing autographs at conventions years from now. Cosmopolis has already reportedly inspired Werner Herzog to cast Pattinson in his next feature.
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