With ‘Cosmopolis,’ a Limo Ride That Redefined Robert Pattinson’s Career

“Any assault on the borders of perception is going to seem rash at first,” says Eric Packer, the cocksure, self-destructive, limo-riding finance guy at the heart of David Cronenberg’s 2012 Don DeLillo adaptation “Cosmopolis.” The character is talking about currency speculation, but he may just as well be talking about the actor playing him: Robert Pattinson, known to audiences then as Edward Cullen, the co-protagonist of the “Twilight” franchise, and to audiences now as not merely and Batman, but the Batman. (And the co-protagonist of the “Twilight” franchise.)

At 10 years, “Cosmopolis” is a footnote in Cronenberg’s career and a pivotal moment in Pattinson’s. Before the movie premiered at Cannes in 2012, Pattinson’s work in films like “Little Ashes” (a romantic drama about Salvador Dalí’s love affair with Federico García Lorca), “Remember Me” (a romantic drama that ends in the World Trade Center on the morning of 9/11) and “Water for Elephants” (a romantic drama set in a circus that frankly plays like a circus itself) earned him negligible distinction compared to the “Twilight” movies, none of which distinguished him universally, for the better . Slant Magazine described Pattinson in “Twilight” as a “blank, pasty-faced, fire-haired Gap model”; The Austin Chronicle opined that his “cheekbones keep getting in the way of the story”; Slate semi-praised his performance at the expense of Catherine Hardwicke’s filmmaking, writing that Pattinson “doesn’t seem to have been given much direction beyond ‘melt the camera with your eyes.’

As the “Twilight” films lumbered along, Pattinson’s notices grew slimmer, leading to his near-absence in reviews of the property’s capper, “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2,” which opened in theaters in the fall of 2012. ( His co-star, Kristen Stewart, received the bulk of critics’ attention.) The conclusion of “Twilight” liberated Pattinson from his image as Edward Cullen, but “Cosmopolis” allowed him to make a new beginning, with a stage (and a stretch limousine) to explore his talent in ways his previous roles didn’t let him.

Stilted, strange and too eager to make its points about the financial elite and reckless capitalism during Occupy Wall Street, “Cosmopolis” cast Pattinson against contemporary screen titans (Juliette Binoche, Paul Giamatti); assigned him awkward dialogue about everything from Eric’s gastrointestinal health to his mother-in-law’s physique; and inserted him in situations, from kinky to violent to repulsive, far beyond his purview as a YA heartthrob. Eric has ferocious casual sex with Binoche’s character, Didi Fancher, in the limo, has his prostate examined in the limo and in one of the movie’s rare scenes outside the limo, has athletic casual sex with his bodyguard, Kendra (Patricia McKenzie), then orders her to blast him with her stun gun. “I’m looking for more,” he rasps at her from rumpled sheets. “Show me something I don’t know.”

Again, “Cosmopolis” lends the sense that Pattinson is talking about Pattinson. Maybe, after a runaway franchise, Pattinson felt like he had something to prove. By his estimation, 75 percent of his performance in the “Twilight” movies came from his hair. No wonder he jumped on a movie about a man driving across New York City to see his barber. Eric’s’ do is subdued from the start – slicked, tight and controlled, much like Pattinson’s performance. He’s rigid with purpose, masking Eric’s interior doubts with a stiff exterior bravado that comes rapidly undone by the film’s climax. Throughout, Pattinson shows flashes of the actor he’s capable of being with the right material and the right director. The next decade often gave him both.

He appeared in a sprawl of independent films from seasoned authors and cutting-edge modern directors: David MichÛ’s “The Rover,” Werner Herzog’s “Queen of the Desert,” James Gray’s “The Lost City of Z,” Brady Corbet’s “Childhood of a Leader, ”the Safdie brothers ‘“ Good Time, ”the Zellner brothers’“ Damsel, ”Robert Eggers’s“ The Lighthouse, ”Claire Denis’s“ High Life. ” (He also teamed up again with Cronenberg in 2014 for “Maps to the Stars.”) Rather than parlay commercial success into roles befitting his celebrity stature, Pattinson took the money and ran, appearing in movies most of his fans almost certainly wouldn’t watch, or know about, without his involvement (and probably didn’t even with it). He didn’t play his career safe. He got weird.

“Cosmopolis” showed everyone watching the potential Pattinson couldn’t demonstrate in the boundaries of the “Twilight” movies, and he’s realized that potential in countless roles ever since. Certainly there are traces of Eric Packer in, for example, Samuel Alabaster, the effete, well-to-do pioneer man of “Damsel”; in Ephraim Winslow, the overambitious lighthouse keeper aspirant of “The Lighthouse”; or in Connie Nikas, the “Good Time” character who shares both Eric’s abandon and his apathy for bystanders caught in his path.

After making the most of his “Twilight” clout working on off-kilter, elusive and plain old bizarre indie movies, Pattinson has circled back around to something familiar: franchise blockbusters. Matt Reeves’s film “The Batman” returns Pattinson to his roots, in a sense. (Cronenberg, by happy coincidence, has stayed simpatico with Pattinson by returning to his own roots, body horror, in his new film, “Crimes of the Future.”) The surface similarities of “The Batman” to “Twilight” are matched by a few substantive similarities to “Cosmopolis”; much like Cronenberg’s movie, Reeves’s film is about a man too young to possess as much wealth as he does, who is driven in part by lingering grief over his dead father. But that’s where the comparisons between these two films end.

By the laws of franchise maintenance, Pattinson is set to star as the Dark Knight once more in an inevitable sequel, but by the lessons learned in “Cosmopolis,” he’ll most likely go back to making offbeat choices before long. Those are the choices that define him now, after all, not “Twilight,” and not “The Batman.” All he needed was to climb in a limousine and take a ride with Cronenberg.

“Cosmopolis” is available to stream on Amazon.

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