Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Counselor Movie Review

In general I try to avoid what other critics have to say about a film before I see it. Sometimes I have a general idea of the critical consensus, but in the case of The Counselor I knew nothing. I was shocked to find that the majority of critics had ripped it apart. It would have been surprising enough only for the fact that it was directed by Ridley Scott from an original screenplay by novelist Cormac McCarthy (his first produced). McCarthy is, after all, one of the greatest contemporary fiction writers in America. It also features a phenomenal cast of highly capable actors. Mostly my disbelief registered so high because I thought The Counselor was just wonderful, exemplifying the very best of what McCarthy accomplishes in his novels.


To be fair, I recognize this is not necessarily a movie for everyone. It takes a certain amount of patience and perseverance to get through it. You can’t go into this looking for your basic run-of-the-mill action film. McCarthy is known for long stretches of philosophical musings very often coming from the most unlikely of sources like a street level drug dealer in Chicago (a walk-on John Leguizamo), the head of a Mexican drug cartel (Rubén Blades), or an Amsterdam diamond dealer played by German actor Bruno Ganz. I can see how it could be frustrating to be waiting for a car chase,  shooting, or a fistfight only to encounter long speeches replete with flowery prose and ten dollar words that touch on such big topics as life, death, man’s place in the grand scheme, the choices we make, and their inevitable reverberations through unexpected parts of our lives. This to me is the stuff of great storytelling. It provides some reason to stick with the ride apart from a desire to see what happens next.

The great Michael Fassbender is in the title role, a defense lawyer referred to only as “counselor,” an ironic term for he provides little counsel of his own and never heeds the advice doled out to him by any of his friends and associates. He is hopelessly in love with Laura (Penélope Cruz) to the point that he’s willing to put himself way into hock for a diamond ring. He wants so much to shower her with a lavish lifestyle that he gets in over his head in a drug deal arranged by his friend, Reiner (Javier Bardem), through Westray, an associate played by Brad Pitt. But when something goes terribly wrong that looks, to the cartel, like the three principal men were engaged in possibly shady dealings, Westray advises The Counselor to clear out and don’t look back while he himself closes up shop and Reiner fails to grasp how truly deadly a situation he’s in.

McCarthy’s vision is of the lawless west through the prism of the modern day USA-Mexico border country. Like No Country for Old Men, evil lurks in the hearts of all men as well as, in this case, women for once. Reiner’s girlfriend, Malkina, is a woman who lacks empathy. She’s introduced on the open plain watching her pet leopards chase down a jackrabbit. She admires the elegance of the cats and the ruthlessness of the hunt and the kill. That her entire torso is tattooed in a leopard pattern should tell you something about where her character is headed. That and the fact that Reiner confesses to The Counselor that Malkina scares the hell out of him. Cameron Diaz shakes off the nice girl rom-com persona she’s most famous for to play the malicious Malkina. There’s a kinship between her character and Anton Chigurgh, another McCarthy creation, coincidentally played on screen by Javier Bardem.

Unlike Chigurgh, whose background we know nothing about, we learn that Malkina’s fate was sealed by a struggling childhood and the loss of her parents. She has learned to feel nothing and to value riches and the high life. She and Laura are two sides of the same coin: Laura the sweet confection and Malkina the bitter aftertaste, both of whom are doted on by their respective lovers. In McCarthy’s world, a nose for sniffing out weakness and taking what you can get immediately is what gives one the edge over the other. Some may find fault with McCarthy’s screenplay resembling too much the structure and passages of a novel. It’s not very movie-like, they might say. Defying expectations is what the best art aspires to. But then even when he’s following basic conventions such as foreshadowing (the most horrific events are described in detail by characters long before they play out on screen), he’s setting us up for some terrible thing we know is coming. So it sits in the back of your mind throughout scene after scene of talk, while we wait, knowing that the images we’ve already firmly rooted in our minds, will eventually come to fruition.

Ridley Scott’s signature direction tends to be most pronounced when he’s dealing with bigger epic and science fiction stories. When I think of his work, I immediately draw upon Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, and Prometheus. But then you remember that he’s a director who can also deal well when it comes to character drama and lighter action. Films like Matchstick Men, Thelma & Louise, and now The Counselor are shining examples of how a strong director can bring a great screenplay to life. He opens the space up and reminds us of the great cinematic westerns with gorgeous landscape shots that reveal the solitude of that country. When he takes us inside, the sets are under-dressed, cold, and uninviting.

That uninviting feeling permeates the entire film, which may be the principle reason so many people have responded so badly to it. Nihilistic is a lightweight term for what The Counselor is. Do not go into this easily for there is no hope to be gleaned from it. We learn a lot about character and maybe something about ourselves in the process. Although it’s not the principal reason I love the movies, most people use the medium as escapist entertainment. That’s why The Hunger Games rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars in ticket sales. Katniss Everdeen gives the people of Panem hope and, by extension, the people who pay to see or read about her adventures. The Counselor is having none of that.  

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