Imagine popping a pill that triggers total memory recall and information intake to allow you to achieve whatever you want in life. Sounds like superhuman power, the ultimate aphrodisiac, perhaps? But with such power come responsibility and an ugly side. This is the idea behind The Illusionist’s Neil Burger’s new psychological thriller, Limitless, starring The Hangover’s Bradley Cooper as failing writer Eddie and cinema stalwart Robert De Niro as a financial guru who wants to tap into Eddie’s new monetary potential.
The concept is cinematic gold that could go either way. Burger takes us on Eddie’s whirlwind journey, leading us through what’s going on in his mind when he’s intoxicated, as well as following his increasingly erratic actions. There are some compelling and beautifully seamless vortex shots as we ‘tunnel’ at speed though cars and buildings in a continuous travelling shot through the sights of New York. Burger also attempts to distinguish between ‘reality’ and Eddie’s NZT-drug-induced state by blurring the edges of the frame in a fish-eye lens effect that is often rendered unnoticeable to help confused matters and obscure the difference between ‘real’ and ‘high’ Eddie. Visually, the film is stunning, with grittier cinematography in the lows and glossier in the highs.
Such a film still needs a strong main character, and Cooper gets his opportunity in his first leading man role, virtually carrying every scene in a more serious affair than his usual supporting ‘buddy’ roles. Cooper excels in this, possibly because he is such a likeable personality who is believable as a success or a failure. Indeed, as we easily warm to him, we instantly root for Eddie throughout the story, even though the character is not always a likeable one and does some questionable acts. As Eddie’s primary goal is to make a comfortable future for him and his girlfriend, Lindy, commendably played by Abbie Cornish, we somehow excuse some of his more dubious decisions, and empathise with his weaker moments. Cooper also keeps Eddie as grounded as possible – ironic in a film about drugs, making sure Eddie never ventures into total arrogance and decadence that we lose our faith in him. It’s a demanding role that Cooper admirably makes his own.
This film is by no means condoning drug use, although suggesting all material problems can be solved by a super pill is borderline controversial. What the story sinisterly proposes, though, is Eddie remains physically and mentally vulnerable after encountering the drug. Hence the message, ‘say no to drugs’ stills triumphs. Furthermore, the compelling final standoff between Eddie and De Niro’s character, Van Loon, certainly implies drugs are not the answer, but there is ample scope for debate in this parting meeting that is bursting with inferences. Cooper as Eddie again demonstrates his rise in the acting ranks with some memorable boardroom confrontations opposite De Niro, who gives his usual impeccable performance in this.
Mirroring the good and bad points of drug taking – the pharmaceutical face and origin behind NZT is intriguingly absent in this film, all the main characters are shown in a good and bad light. Lindy appears to be an innocent victim, but could equally be criticised for only taking Eddie back when the affluent effects of the drug become apparent. Even the stereotypical baddie, Russian gangster Gennady, brilliantly played by the terrifying Andrew Howard of recent I Spit on Your Grave fame, may well be a brutal thug, but his goals are much the same as Eddie’s. Therefore, in the long run, is he any worse a character than the writer?
The escalation of greed is a major factor in the film, and the unsettling aspiration of always wanting more – the ugly side of the American Dream – is rife. Another fascinating implication is how many other people in power are on the wonder drug, which gradually comes to light as the plot thickens. This stays as the film’s enthralling revelation for the viewer that combined with the frantic pace, triggers the old grey matter in an analytical approach.
Stylish, cerebral, dynamic and packed with star talent, Burger competently further stamps his presence in the psychological film realm with Limitless, whilst showing a healthy new talent and detailed respect for action-based film-making.