Novelist Cormac McCarthy sat down in the theater to see what Ethan and Joel Coen had made of his book No Country for Old Men (2007) and thought it was pretty weak tea. That’s when he started writing The Counselor (2013), his first original screenplay. At least that’s what I suspect happened. Either that or he felt that the popular acceptance of his movie was displeasing in some way and basically said, “Oh yeah, you think you like that? Try some of this.” The Road (2009), another of his harrowing tales adapted for the screen, flew just under the radar of the masses and didn’t stun the audience because they know who McCarthy is and what The Road is about. Not so The Counselor, cloaked by the mainstream artist/director Ridley Scott and a cast of critical darlings. It’s a hard film, but a very good one. If you thought you were getting the sexy thriller caper-gone-wrong as advertised in the trailer, like an Elmore Leonard story set in Mexico, you’re half-right. It is set mostly in Mexico and things go badly.
The Counselor (Michael Fassbender) has gotten himself into a dangerous deal. He needs the money. Reiner (Javier Bardem), his partner, sits down with him and warns him. “If you think there are things they will not do, you are wrong.” The Counselor is not dissuaded. He’s clearly a sharp, highly competent, highly confident man. He sits down with Westray (Brad Pitt), the middle man, who also warns him. Westray isn’t sure about him, but that’s not his problem. The Counselor is involved with the beautiful Laura (Penélope Cruz), whom he loves. Reiner is in love with the beautiful Malkina (Cameron Diaz), who scares the hell out of him. Just as the deal is going through, there’s a problem. Someone steals the shipment of drugs and the repercussions are dire.
If I had seen this film before hearing that the critical reception was poor, I probably would have been upset with it. I was not upset with it. This isn’t the kind of medium-weight entertainment I was expecting. Ridley Scott’s films are usually visually striking, darkly emotional, and thoroughly entertaining. Not everything he’s made is to my liking, but the spirit behind it almost always is to my taste. Ridley Scott is a lot like Steven Spielberg. They’re both undeniably talented directors, but their work is always ‘wide-release’, as in “for the people.” The Counselor is not for the people. If Scott thinks that it is, he has greatly overestimated the mainstream’s desire and tolerance for near-misogyny. I haven’t read a single review for The Counselor, but I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that any critic under the age of 87 used that word and applied it to McCarthy.
I don’t believe that McCarthy’s screenplay is misogynistic. The characters are certainly chauvinistic and talk about women’s sexual activity an alarming amount, but I believe that message to be ironic rather than expressing a truth. The truth lies only in that these men talk about women and that it directs their actions. The thriller side of the plot is so sparingly told–much like Scott’s Prometheus (2012) with holes only fillable on the second and third viewing–that these themes are clearly of greater importance. The Counselor is a lot like a David Mamet film in that way, though Mamet usually draws his stories a little more cleanly. And like Mamet (and Elmore Leonard), there’s a lot of philosophical chatter with characters baldly telling their own views on life in hard poetical terms. Again, if you come in looking for a medium-brow thriller, it’s jarring. But when you watch it on its own terms, it’s spectacular.
The cast is a very good one on paper. My judgment is not finalized as to their performances in this movie. Fassbender and Bardem are absolute favorites and they didn’t do anything so crazy to question their status. The editing of their performances was, possibly, less than perfect. Bardem is antsy in a way that seems theatrical rather than driven by a character choice. Fassbender just isn’t the leading man of this film that I expected. In the back of my mind I kept waiting for the moment when he would try to take control of the situation, but he never did. He acted like a normal person would, he would try a little and then despair. One serious complaint of the film could be made that Fassbender’s role was too large to justify that much screen time. But that’s if you’re watching this movie as a thriller, which, as I think I’ve mentioned, it isn’t.
Cameron Diaz, I’m afraid, has never been and never will be a palatable screen presence for me. Something in the way she talks and acts is unalterably trivial. The kinds of dark existential views she’s made to expound seem so misplaced in her. She’s like Sandra Bullock without the motherly quality. But they got this cheetah thing going on in the movie and Diaz does look like the sort of person that might tattoo cheetah print on her back. I mean, yeah, it looked cool, but she doesn’t have the gravely presence to make it look as though she chose it for dark reasons. She might be too California to be evil and clever simultanrously. Michelle Williams would have been nearer the mark. Ooh, Charlize Theron, that’d be good.
The Counselor looked great. Scott and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski use a creamy palette that makes everything glossy and cool until that glossiness only shows how vulnerable the characters are, then it isn’t so cool. The look competes a bit with the brutal reality they’re trying to express in the film, but that is, itself, a part of the message (whether intentional or not). The music (Daniel Pemberton) was very good, though not as well choreographed as I like music to be. My biggest complaint with the film, however, is in the editing (Pietro Scalia). The scenes play out like Mamet in the speed of the dialogue and the editing follows that same cadence. I don’t remember any cross-fades, only sharp cuts to the next scene and even within scenes. It made me anxious without moving the story along. That, I think, misled me to expect more thrilling action was forthcoming.
The Counselor is an adult film. The language is coarse but also high-level. Anyone can hear the words and dimly understand it, but you have to let it settle to take it in as unpretentious. The plot is also not a satisfying one. As I said, no one picks up a gun to take on the bad guys. Probably because they’re all bad guys and the worst guys we never actually get to meet. But see it and tell me what you think.
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