We Are The Dead
Before you read any further, by the way, there are spoilers ahead. Massive, unavoidable SPOILERS.
In both novel and film, young hotshot billionaire Eric Packer decides to get a haircut, starting an odyssey across New York's grid, which, jammed by the motorcade of the US President, the funeral cortege of a Muslim rapper, and an anti-capitalist protest that culminates in a riot in Times Square, increasingly resembles the Hunger City of David Bowie's 'Diamond Dogs'. Packer observes this human chaos from the coffin of his cork-lined (prousted), fully-equipped limousine, where he tracks his attempt to buy as much of the world's supply of yuan (yen, in the novel) as possible and receives visits from various experts who work for him, and an intimate medical examination. Excursions include sexual dalliances with his art dealer and one of his bodyguards, a visit to a rave, and several encounters with his new, independently-wealthy wife. Meanwhile, his currency speculation goes monstrously awry, and it becomes clear that someone wants to kill him.
Robert Patterson, formerly the world's most famous vampire, imbues Packer with a glacial, otherworldly glamour that reminded me more than a little of David Bowie's stranded alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth. Another person trapped in the consequences of their meddling with the controls of the capitalist world-machine. He spends most of the first half of the film wearing sunglasses, but even without them his gaze is inscrutable, barely human. He's the epitome of capitalism, a maths whiz who made his money in the dot-com boom and parlayed it into a stratospheric fortune by playing the money markets with strategies most can't follow. The kind of omnicompetent hero usually found in science-fiction novels, armoured by his wealth against the consequences of his manipulations, issuing demands to minions to purchase whatever catches his eye (he has already bought a Russian nuclear bomber; he wants to buy the Rothko chapel and install it in his apartment; there's room, apparently, next to the shooting range). For much of the film, Packer and the camera are locked together inside the limousine while the New York streets flow past like glimpses of an alien planet on a spaceship's viewscreens. In one of the best scenes, Packer and his theorist (played by Samantha Morton with just the right touch of steely eccentricity; all of the actors give fine performances) exchange quips and observations while waves of rioters break against the limo, but fail to do little more than cover it in graffiti scribble and tilt the level of the cocktail in Packer's glass.
Those quips and observations . . . They're lifted straight from the pages of the novel, but they don't really work, as film dialogue. Like Harold Pinter, DeLillo's dialogue puts its own spin on the repetition and circling flow of 'realistic' dialogue. But while Pinter's dialogue, on the stage, is like a flurry of punches, DeLillo's, on the screen, is more like a kind of intellectual ping-pong. The characters are far smarter than us, but the things they say aren't the things that people far smarter than us would say. In the novel, this works, sort of, as a kind of parody of Packer's isolation from the actual world detachment. It's all very postmodern, irony ironising itself with a knowing wink. In the film, despite the best attempts by the actors to give it life, it often doesn't connect. The characters don't connect with each other; the audience doesn't connect with the characters. Its abiding flaw isn't pretentiousness, exactly; I admire Cronenberg's audacity in trying to portray the mindset of someone who has lost contact with the ordinary world and is, maybe, trying to find his way back in. No, it's that Cronenberg doesn't make us care about the characters, or what's happening to them. When Packer throws himself against the slopes of the man-mountain who gives him the news of the rapper's death, we don't believe his grief. When his wife tells him she wants a divorce, we wonder how she managed to stick it out for so long.
And when Packer finally gets to the quaint old neighbourhood barbershop where he used to get his hair cut as a kid, while his driver and the barber bond over shared experiences driving cabs in NYC, Packer remains aloof. Okay, the scene which satisfies his child-like concern about where limousines go, at night, is touching, but this delicacy is shattered by a botched volley from his would-be killer, a lead-in to the last twenty minutes, trapped now in a derelict room piled with dead cathode-ray monitors and other kibble rather than a high-spec limo and its icy blue touch-screens, while Packer and his murderer (Paul Giamatti, hooded with a ratty towel like a hobo monk) interrogate each others' motives, and the film finally gains a dimension of suspense.
And here's the thing that Cronenberg elided. Not Packer's motive for destroying everything he's created, but his state of mind, at the end. Or rather, his state of grace. In the novel, in the first pages of the novel, we're told that Packer can't sleep. That sleep eludes him. 'Sleep failed him more often now, not once or twice a week but four times, five.' When he reaches that barbershop, in the novel, he not only touches base with who he once was, but he finds a place of safety. A place where he can, and briefly does, sleep. And after he wakes, when he's riding in the limousine again, he finds a film-shoot where several hundred naked people, in the style of Spencer Tunick, imitate the victims of some atrocity. And he joins them, and finds his wife, and, it's made clear, in the novel, also finds himself. In the film, his willed self-destruction is an extension of his megalomania. In the novel, it becomes something else, something more like human life, rounded with a sleep.