by Niles Schwartz
2012 is the year of the babyface, and I’m not just saying that because of my own Dorian Gray complex. After Step-Up or G.I. Joe, who would have thought that Channing Tatum would be the year’s breakthrough actor, impressing in Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire, flexing his self-deprecating comic muscles in 21 Jump Street, and playing the lead in one of the year’s most compelling dramas – based on his own experiences - Magic Mike, a near-great film that was also something of an affront to the audience for which it was hyped. Following Tatum are Matthew McConaughey and Robert Pattinson, whose Killer Joe and Cosmopolis, respectively, cast the smooth-visaged heartthrobs against type in remarkable films that are also meant to call attention to the audience’s habit of lazily gazing.
We love to praise the actors with idiosyncratic faces (Pacino, Hoffman, De Niro, Duvall, Nicholson, Malkovich, Walken, Streep, Swank), or the musky dudes exuding raw aggression (Newman, Brando, McQueen, Eastwood), but the pretty boys have always had to work a little harder. Yes, Love Story‘s Ryan O’Neal gave one of the 1970s’ great performances in Barry Lyndon. Beatty and Redford were always fine actors, but really had to go behind the camera before getting their deserved respect. George Clooney had to do the same, in addition to goofing around with the Coen brothers. I remember men refusing to go see an excellent movie like The Aviator simply because it starred Leonardo DiCaprio (his boyish beauty being an integral element to why his performance as Howard Hughes works). Ryan Gosling is lucky The Notebook was not nearly as successful as Titanic, and he’s done well in keeping a high “cool” quotient by subsequently playing damaged men in Half Nelson, Lars and the Real Girl, Blue Valentine, and Drive.
Now we have Magic Mike. And then there’s Tatum’s co-star Matthew McConaughey, who began glowingly in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused before his box-office breakthrough in Joel Schulmacher’s wretched A Time to Kill. He soon became the Rom Com king of the next ten years (a crown that Gerard Butler threatens to take currently), his small anomolous role as a needy agent in Tropic Thunder (2008) probably being his only worthwhile part in the aughts. But he impressed last year in a smarter lawyer drama, The Lincoln Lawyer, and then reunited with Linklater as a smarmy prosecutor in the true-life indie sleeper Bernie before stretching out his subtle capitalist rattlesnake sex-god charisma as the mentor Dallas in Magic Mike, strumming “Ladies of Tampa” like a half-naked version of Joel Grey’s Cabaret master-of-ceremonies. And now he gives the performance of his life as a lethal and perversely ethical lawman/hitman in William Friedkin’s Killer Joe, playing the title role in a wicked Texas farce that’s equal parts hilarious and horrific.
Completing the year’s beauteous trifecta is Robert Pattinson, R-Patt, the Twilight heartthrob who’s become the animus figure for millions of adolescent women, his real life relationship to Twilight co-star Kristen Stewart making for some intense OMFG tabloid gossip and tweets. Though Pattinson is probably no DiCaprio, like Leo’s relationship to Martin Scorsese he’s become a devoted collaborator with the legendary David Cronenberg, who’s cast him in the lead of Cosmopolis, a harrowing, dense, and uncomfortable film with a style that invites the hate of viewers annoyed with its offbeat and claustrophobic approach.
“I be strokin’”: Killer Joe
According to editor Darrin Navarro, the last image of Killer Joe is tied to star Matthew McConaughey’s long standing reputation as a romantic leading man. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that the ending is ambiguous, as writer Tracy Letts and director Friedkin have succeeded in pulling us into an uncomfortable hell of incest, filthy voyeurism, and degrading misogynistic humiliation – while making the whole experience rather funny. In the final moments, we’ve reached the apex of a violent and frenzied inferno which should probably close with one more bullet, but Navarro suggested to Friedkin that they end the picture with a look on McConaughey’s face reminiscent of what we would see in the “happy ending” moments in a standard Rom Com co-starring Kate Hudson.
It’s a perversion of the “happy marriage” ending, where everything is neatly tied together as in the comedies of mismatched identities and persistence written by Shakespeare. There’s blood, perspiration, decay, and fellated fried chicken all around the trailer of the white trash Smith family, but then – a glint of light evoking How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days or The Wedding Planner (and I’m not even sure if McConaughey was in The Wedding Planner, but what the hell). It’s appropriate because the 76-year-old Friedkin, who’s finally been able to regain his touch with Letts (the two previously worked together on the accomplished thriller Bug), is making an explicit film about the lazy eyed American public, too comfortable with happy endings. Killer Joe not only is a shining example of how McConaughey can be a great actor, but it also shows how the former wunderkind William Friedkin (whose Oscar at age 28 for The French Connection made him youngest director to win the award) has gracefully aged into a delirious doomsayer and aging curmudgeon.
However inadvertently, Friedkin’s casting of girl-friendly glamor boy McConaughey works perfectly in steering Killer Joe’s dark reflections into the dulled consciences of a reality-TV fed audience. The director of The French Connection, The Exorcist, and the newly reevaluated Sorcerer (in addition to Cruising and To Live and Die in L.A., both of which have also gained more respect with time) has lamented how the films of his glory days confronted an audience distraught by war and government corruption, while the modern-day audience is fine with escapism and easily drawn dichotomies of good and evil. We could doubt his complaint as a simplification, but The Exorcist, featuring a pre-teen jabbing a crucifix into her bloody vagina while yelling “Fuck Jesus,” was arguably just as shocking – and as ambiguous – as Killer Joe while also becoming the top-grossing film of all-time in 1973.
But since 1973, television has taken over. Though the Smiths, confined to their trailer, obviously don’t have much money, they can still afford a nice flat-screen TV that always seems to be on (presumably playing cable channels). The picture begins with television fuzz, as if the story were settling into the fantasyland of late-night screen images. Chris (Emile Hirsch) pounds on the trailer doors, trying to wake up his zombie-like sister Dottie (Juno Temple), who lives in a Barbie world of idealized female images alongside pop posters featuring Justin Bieber. The trailer door opens with the comparably less innocent sight of femininity, the full-frontal bush of Chris’ step-mother Sharla (Gina Gershon), unashamed though Chris loudly voices his disgust.
One of the troubling aspects of romantic comedies, I think, has to do with how they are structured to reinforce a sense of how the female protagonists’ self-esteem revolves around the men surrounding them, Matthew McConaughey being the representative ideal. Well, in Killer Joe we begin with men surrounded by women they’re seeking to control. Chris presumably has some kind of incestuous relationship to Dottie, a 21-year-old who seems to retain a 12-year-old’s perspective; he is looking to talk to his dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church, excellent as ever) about murdering his biological mother for insurance money, and then he is repulsed by his step-mother Sharla’s genitals, which may remind him of all his motives for being here. (To molest Dottie? To kill his own off-screen mother who gave birth to him?) Outside, father and son debate the murder scheme for life insurance, Ansel declaring that he deserves a fair share in the decision-making process: “I found her! She’s my ex-wife!” To do the deed, they hire a local detective, “Killer” Joe Cooper (McConaughey), the romantic leading man who will only carry out the deed if he’s given a “retainer” – the beautiful and innocent (though abused) Dottie.
When Joe earlier met Dottie, we notice how he turns off the television before telling her how he’s “real.” In the course of the film, Friedkin will have Joe turn off the TV two more times to get the attention of an otherwise transfixed and numbed fast-food family. He tells Dottie a story about a man who set his genitals on fire to get revenge on a cheating wife. “I guess he showed her,” he says. “I wonder if she ever got over it,” Dottie wonders. It’s a funny and disturbing moment of Max Cady-like flirtation, but the point of the story is how the man’s sexuality so fully possesses his image of a woman, that destroying his own genitals is supposed to do her harm.
The second time Joe turns off the television is when he comes to claim his “retainer,” Dottie. He shoos Ansel away (who had just been talking to the screen’s monster truck drivers), and forces Dottie to strip for him while putting on a slinky second-hand dress. When he says “bring the dress,” the close-up of Joe goes out of focus for a short moment (I’m not sure if this is deliberate or a flub), and Dottie stands in front of the television. “I want to see you put it on.”
This disquieting moment, somewhat evocative of Blue Velvet (and Joe is in many ways similar to Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth), of course implicates us as viewers who stare and imagine along with Joe. Dottie goes back in time, channeling the first time she fell in love at the age of 12 (many viewers have misinterpreted this scene, believing that Dottie is actually 12, and that Joe is so having sex with an underage girl). She tells Joe that his “eyes hurt,” and that they’re “cold eyes,” but she goes along with the fantasy being constructed by him. And perhaps we do too. But even though Joe is a cinematic character of sadistic bondage, imprisoning his female prey like Frank Booth, Max Cady (in Cape Fear), or Harry Powell (The Night of the Hunter) – in addition to other sociopathic negotiating creeps from Strangers on a Train and Blood Simple (two murderous characters who, like Joe, fiddle with a lighter) – what’s established is the “happy marriage” of the romantic movie household, Dottie passively playing the role of leading lady. Chris, as the incestuous brother (or jealous ex-boyfriend with whom we’re well familiar with from so many other feel-good rom-coms), is naturally infuriated.
But, as with every good noir, there is a complication. Behind Chris and Ansel’s seemingly fool-proof plan is an unseen problem with the insurance pay-out, ensuring that Killer Joe will be coming back to set things right. There is no easy way out or clean getaways, only an existence reflecting those flickering TV lessons. In despair, Chris watches the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote cartoon, the cycle of debt “just going on and on and on.” Joe turns off the television a third time with a vengeance, exposing hidden truths and enforcing “righteous” (and repugnant) justice on the Smiths, a family that Friedkin may be implying is widely representative. “I’m never aware,” Ansel says to Joe in a dead-pan state. But how often is anybody really aware?
Friedkin, who is famously merciless with all of his characters and unwilling to divvy them up between “white hats” and “black hats,” launches a climax of visceral sexual humiliation, during which our reaction to what is happening – which may be buoyant – is undercut by how graphic and nakedly detestable it is. We are meant to leave Killer Joe with a bad taste in our mouths (well…bad fried chicken), even though it’s arguably a happy ending just as it’s a nihilistic one. The final wink – which left me guiltily smiling – was the end credits offering of Clarence Carter’s “Strokin’,” which briefly played earlier as Chris was getting pummeled by a loan-shark’s thugs. The fantasies of facile romantic comedy, witnessed in McConaughey’s final expression, are married to borderline snuff depravity and violence – and we’re masturbating to all of it, especially when the woman, Dottie, finally asserts herself. Her final confrontation with Joe is, basically, no different from the climactic main event we’ve seen in (masturbatory) Hollywood fantasies for decades: though she rebels against the agents of masculine control, McConaughey’s final smile – the Rom Com allusion – becomes one final gesture of power over her, and how females are framed culturally. Dumbed down by television, we, like the Smith family, might not be aware of anything, but we sure be strokin’, claiming to please the ladies of the world while we’re really just pleasing ourselves.
“The present is hard to find”: Cosmopolis
It felt like half of the audience walked out during Cosmopolis’ press screening. The press screening. Not ordinary everyday movie viewers who won a pass from some local pop station, but individuals given a microphone or with access to online or print media, responsible for voicing their opinions to the general public regarding whatever motion picture was now in their sights. Before the lights went down, I heard some of these lucky elites talking. They couldn’t wait to see Cosmopolis, because the news had just broke about Kristen Stewart cheating on the film’s heartthrob star, Robert Pattinson (aka “R-Patt”), with their Twilight: Eclipse director (and director of Stewart’s Snow White and the Huntsman), Rupert Sanders. The release of a Pattinson solo project in the coming month would give them some juice. “I hope this is good,” a woman says to her friend. “There’s really going to be nothing else to talk about!”
Well, that lady walked out about 30 minutes into Cosmopolis, David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Don DiLillo’s 2003 novel, during which billionaire Eric Packer (Pattinson) makes his way across Manhattan in an enormous white limo, loses his fortune, exercises his libido, is harassed by Marxist protesters, evades an assassin, and – most importantly – looks for a haircut. Several other audience members followed suite, probably hitching a ride on the Total Recall screening scheduled to begin an hour later (coincidental, as Total Recall’s star, Colin Farrell, ditched Cosmopolis for Total Recall, itself a remake of a 1988 Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle that a younger David Cronenberg was going to direct before getting fired and doing Dead Ringers instead).
It felt like there was a lot of hate in the air that night – born of frustration with how Cosmopolis resisted lucidity. Its characters speak brief monologues in monotone, their communication between each other hampered as they inhabit the same space but seemed worlds apart. Even husband and wife are strangers to each other. (“I didn’t know you had blue eyes.”) The temporal dynamics of the film’s world is completely displaced. Time has no context and is nothing but an abstract concept now. Moving into the future, the film doesn’t stop to recapitulate and let us catch up. And so the IMDB message boards seem to corroborate that Cosmopolis is the most hated masterpiece since The Tree of Life. Yet I loved it. Every frame, every word, and every gesture was luscious.
The spotlight is on young pretty-boy Pattinson as billionaire Eric Packer, a 28-year-old financial genius who studies “patterns, ratios, indexes, and whole maps of information,” his analyses of capital creating the future: an associate (Jay Baruchel) admits that people “live in the shadow of what we do.” The sparkling emo-vampire Edward Cullen from Twilight is a stone-cold Wall Street sociopath existing in a Manhattan dreamscape of steel and glass, coasting in his mobile bubble, a stretch white limousine that, like so many other limousines, eats up the traffic on the crowded streets. That’s okay. He makes space. His office, his bedroom, and even in one moment his bathroom are contained in the cyberglow aquarium of the limo. The car is “Prousted,” alluding to sickly Marcel Proust separated from the outside world, outpouring lost time and things past into his novels. Behind the characters, the outside world feels like old-style movie rear projection, hyperreality fooling our eyes and ears. The air is tightly contained in the car, with an unnerving silence.
Because Cronenberg has constructed this world so accordingly, the critical (or, more accurately, “pop”) accusation that Pattinson acts without range is an aspect of the film that actually works in its favor. Words are hurled all over the place with sharp precision, but between individuals they rarely connect, as if people were existing in their own psychological bubbles as much as Eric lives in the isolation of his limo. If Pattinson is a poor actor, as so many envious hip guys would allege, those qualities work to make his Eric Packer a great performance, a trait that has also often worked for Tom Cruise. “We need a haircut,” Eric says to his bodyguard (Kevin Durand), the pronoun suggesting how the entire world bends to his will and needs. The world of Cosmopolis is one of shallow automatons, where algorithms and precise mathematics working towards “rational” goals are governing. The “President of the United States,” who is also on the streets of Manhattan today, is an afterthought, just one more formidable barrier in traffic.
This is probably why the film is so difficult to grapple with, creating a lot of distress in an impatient audience who wants to know what’s going on. The wolves of DeLillo’s Wall Street are “speculating into the void,” as one character says, another pointing out how “life is too contemporary.” A motif we notice in these characters pertains to how no one knows what’s going on, while they nevertheless go on talking, their speech becoming increasingly abstract and their emotions alienated from their bodies as if they were characters lit for a camera with a blind, but always rotating, focus puller. Markets rise and fall on not only the speculation of economists’ words, but syllables, and pauses between statements.
Some bemused critics and audiences unfortunately stumble into the tired accusation of pretentiousness (a word that nowadays, I’m convinced, is really just synonymous with intellectual “seriousness”), and this is an error. Even though David Cronenberg claims to dislike the recent spectacles of Christopher Nolan, I think his method is the same as Nolan’s (particularly as applicable to The Dark Knight Rises, which has undergone criticism for its lack of clarity), where the over-abundant content becomes part of the picture’s texture and formal architecture. The film’s ideas move fast, and time doesn’t neatly fade into the future through cozy lap dissolves or fades, but moves episodically, digitally, one moment focusing on Eric’s discussion with a 22-year-old computer genius (Philip Nozuka) which is alien from what follows, as Eric fucks his art dealer (Juliette Binoche) and then tries to negotiate paintings. The incessant dialogue washes over the audience, the mood mirroring Eric’s day-to-day tasks and late capitalism generally: the acquisition of information and turning it into something “stupendous and awful.”
Eric’s greed to acquire and control more things is insatiable. He wants to buy the Rothko Chapel, the intimate sanctuary that was built to accommodate people of all beliefs, being open to all people, every day. The art of Rothko (over which the end credits play) represents something still and fixed (as opposed to the ecstatic Jackson Pollock, which opens Cosmopolis), the chapel’s atmosphere there to “inspire people to action through art and contemplation, to nurture reverence for the higher aspirations of humanity, and provide a forum for global concerns.”
The mission statement of the Rothko Chapel is not something to be passively ingested by us as viewers. Certainly, the over-tabloided world with eyes fixed on R-Patt and the beautiful Lady Gaga-ed artificial surfaces of civilization resists the darker implications of Cosmopolis, which are as unfashionable as they are truly, right now, needed in reflecting our society and our art. And in this way, the film beautifully joins hands with Magic Mike in clotheslining a sensationalist’s gossip-hound expectations. The capitalist evolution that’s run amok in this postmodern ecosystem wants to privatize everything, art along with reality. If art can’t be fathomed or appreciated as something that drives contemplation, it must at least be possessed. Cosmopolis’ offbeat aberrations do not sit well with many viewers who want the universe to reason itself out, much as Eric repudiates the motives of his would-be assassin, Benno (Paul Giamatti). “Violence needs a cause,” he says. There must be something rational behind it. But, especially in David Cronenberg’s universe, the body expresses its own logic. A mole on Eric’s body makes him ask his visiting physician, “What are we going to do about this?” “Let it express itself,” the doctor says. And it’s the imperfections of the body, Cronenberg’s storied “flesh,” that could clue Eric into his failings as a Chinese currency eats up his fortune. “The answer was always in your prostate,” Benno says to Eric, referring to an asymmetrical prostate – the single thing that is similar between handsome playboy billionaire Eric and pathetic, unemployable Underground Man Benno.
Cosmopolis then is an appropriate follow-up to Cronenberg’s underappreciated marvel A Dangerous Method, a similarly talky film that was highly epistolary – and erroneously accused of being stagy – where the ideas of Freud and Jung created the 20th century man. I described A Dangerous Method as an improvement on Nolan’s Inception, being also an epic of “ideas” developing and changing the world and people. Played by Michael Fassbender, Carl Jung’s body is treated as a “text” when jealous lover and anima image (in addition to being his inspiration – his inceptor) Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) assaults him with, of all things, a letter opener. Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) collapses, felled as by a weapon when his disciple Jung betrays him by undercutting his theories with his own research. The apocalyptic beast, the “specter haunting the world” of ideas in A Dangerous Method, is the cold rationality that we know will erupt with the Great War on the horizon (the picture ends in 1913), the trajectory of 20th century geopolitics evolving alongside intellectual and artistic achievements and awakenings.
As A Dangerous Method followed modernism’s progress/regress, Cosmopolis is a postmodern omen of apocalypse with a sci-fi forecast of despair in the etherlight of perpetual motion obliterating identity and memory. Eric Packer’s quest for a haircut is a Freaudian death-wish, the culmination of a double-bind psychology that cannot exist with itself: he seeks the past along with death. He cannot understand this, and neither can we. The texts of Freud and Jung, seeking to understand the human being, have given way to the modern treatises of capitalism, where “money has lost its narrative quality” and people are a mere accessory. The symbolism behind protestors burning their bodies like Vietnamese monks is dismissed as being “not original,” and so inconsequential. The popular protest symbol that catches on is a media spectacle done for the sake of photographic significance: flying cream pies hurled by a Romanian madman (Matthieu Amalric), the “action painter of cream pie!” who performs for the camera, boasting how Eric has joined his other victims, including Fidel Castro and Michael Jordan.
What’s behind Cosmopolis and what makes it a great film is not what its hailstorm of philosophical exhortations express to us, but how they are expressed (that is – as a hailstorm). In this post-human landscape of nervous but intense language, where people interact like robots struggling to adjust to one another, Cronenberg has channeled the spirit of the current Occupy movement (a coincidence, of course, being that the novel was written in 2002, and filmed just as the protests were beginning). Critics of Occupy complained that there was no coherent message behind it. Perhaps. But what these critics didn’t dare approach was how the movement, at its best, worked to stir up an awareness to an incoherence that was already innate within the system, and with which our technology, including the media, was complicit. For people who believe that Occupy didn’t have a “message,” I would tell them to watch Cosmopolis in the same way someone in love would want to communicate their feelings in poetry or music before plain prose. The density and texture of Cosmopolis are what express the “message” of Occupy, always more of a psychological state reacting to society than a simple manifesto. Eric’s chief of theory (Samantha Morton) probably comes closest to phrasing it: this is a protest against a future being created by the fusion of technology and capital, as human beings are an afterthought absorbed into the “stream of information.”
This spirit is manifested in Giamatti’s Benno, the Underground Man who is antiquated in his slum squalor, shitting into a “hole placed above another hole,” a casualty unable to keep up with the accelerating speed and genius of Packer’s information bomb. The final 20 minutes of Cosmopolis is a shivery confrontation between Benno and Eric, as the uncomely stink of a maladjusted and miserable man stomps on the face of moviegoers seeking beauty and escape (or Robert Pattinson with his restless sex drive). In Benno, Cronenberg has perhaps created his most moving character since Seth Brundle in The Fly. Here we have the most lucid of the film’s monologists, his Luciferian protest against the 1% representing the underbelly of a neglected class roused to self awareness. The specter haunting the world – capitalism (replacing Marx’s Communism) – is jolting us out of sleep. “I’m helpless in their system that makes no sense to me,” Benno says to Eric. “You want me to be a helpless robot soldier. And all I could be was helpless.” But it’s not just the abstract theory of capitalism – it’s the masks that we take for granted, and which a social reject like Benno must face and resent: “It’s women’s shoes – it’s all the names they have for shoes! And all the people in the park and in the library. Talking in the sun.” Murder is the only way for Benno to feel like a real person as other people are able to have lunch, spend money, express manhood, and pay for their amenities and healthcare.
Will audiences collectively respond to Cosmopolis the same way they did during my press screening? Thus far it’s limited in release, but I would love to see the reactions at a shopping mall theater filled with Twilight fans defending their Edward Cullen in light of a romantic betrayal. Maybe it doesn’t matter, as whatever commercial shortcomings here will be remedied by Twilight 4.2 in November. But in aligning himself with Cronenberg (he’s already signed on to the director’s next film), Pattinson shows how he’s conscious of how he represents a “pretty” surface of something perhaps decadent and more bloodsucking than the undead creature he’s popularly associated with. Eric Packer is also, according to Benno, something dead, a relic from over a hundred years ago, and Pattison’s stoicism serves the character – and the audience – well. The original Metric song “Long to Live” plays over the end credits, its electronic chills the perfect coda for the claustrophobic and metallic veneer of Cosmopolis. Electronic beauty and precision in form contemplates its revealed incoherence and imminent demise.
Killer Joe and Cosmopolis are currently playing at the Lagoon Cinema in Minneapolis. In addition to Cosmopolis, the Minneapolis Film Society in association with the Guthrie is featuring a David Cronenberg series for the next month. Titled “The Baron of Blood,” the series features Sunday and Monday night screenings of The Fly (September 2-3), Videodrome (September 9-10), Dead Ringers (September 16-17), and A Dangerous Method (September 23-24). The final screening of A Dangerous Method will feature a live Q&A with Academy Award winning playwright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton. Purchase tickets at the film society’s website.