Eric Packer is having the worst day of his life. But it takes a long time for the viewer -- forced to become a voyeur by unrelenting filmmaker David Cronenberg -- to realize it.

After all, Eric (Robert Pattinson) spends much of his day being chauffeured around in a stretch limo filled with computer screens, excellent vodka and enough room in which to have comfortable sex -- which he does. But the cork-lined interior, designed to shut out the New York noise, and the armored body, built to protect Packer from his many enemies, cannot insulate the man from the reality he hoped -- and failed -- to create.

The cold, cerebral Packer, a billionaire investment manager, might seem a difficult protagonist with whom to sympathize. But the fact that he indeed thinks about what he does -- a lush Samantha Morton plays his chief theoretician -- makes his downfall, at the very least, meaningful.

On screen
3.5 out of 4 stars
Stars: Robert Pattinson, Sarah Gadon, Juliette Binoche
Director: David Cronenberg
Rated: R for some strong sexual content including graphic nudity, violence and language
Running time: 108 minutes

"Cosmopolis," in fact, overflows with meaning. There's an air of unreality to its dialogue, which is mostly ripped directly from the pages of Don DeLillo's 2003 novel. But it serves only to heighten the reality of the ideas it explores, both psychological and political.

"The phenomenon of reputation is a delicate thing. A person rises on a word, and falls on a syllable," Packer says at the beginning of the film, soon after he's instructed his driver to take him crosstown for a haircut. His own is about to change. He's bet his fortune on the fall of the yuan -- and, unlike his reputation, it's begun an unexpected rise.

We don't know for most of the film why Packer is so insistent on getting his hair trimmed at that particular barbershop. It frustrates his driver to no end. He warns Packer that the trip will be a nightmare -- the president's in town, a celebrity's funeral procession is making its way through the city and anti-capitalist protesters will take over the streets briefly, too. Add to that the "credible threat" of someone taking Packer down.

Here is a man at the end of his rope -- though it takes a long time for us to realize it, and longer still for him to. Cronenberg has always excelled at delineating men on the edge. "Cosmopolis" is as claustrophobic -- physically and psychologically -- as any of his work, and its propositions are as ambitious.

"I'm looking for more. Show me something I don't know," Packer tells one of his sexual partners, who also happens to be one of his bodyguards. He isn't looking for information he can use to make money, or more of an emotional connection from another human being. He worships information so much that he wants to be tased, just so he can learn what it's like.

Pattinson, best known as the heartthrob star of the "Twilight" movies," will surprise many here with his intelligent ease in playing a very different sort of vampire. He carries this movie, though his co-stars help make it more interesting.

Packer's world undergoes much unrest during a single day in his limo. And when a man this important goes down, part of the world goes with him.