The Counselor, Ridley Scott’s chilly and uncompromising new anti-thriller/noir from celebrated novelist Cormac McCarthy, has easily become the most divisive, polarizing big-budget studio release of the year. To listen to most critics you’d think it was the worst movie ever made – a slap in the face to the audience and to filmmaking in general. However, to a small but vocal minority, it has become something of cynical-masterpiece-movie-miracle, the sort of film that’s typically made at the indie level with a zero budget featuring a cast of unknowns (think Miss Bala or Sin Nombre or City of God). Scott, working in a genre not typical to that of his grandiose tendencies, has never had a screenplay like the one McCarthy has given him; this is the bleakest material of either artist’s career, and that says something coming from the minds that have spawned such cultural touchstones as Alien, Blade Runner, No Country for Old Men, and The Road, to name a few (fine, Blood Meridian probably ties with The Counselor in the depravity department). Professional critics complaining that the film is nothing more than style over substance couldn’t be more wrong, and general movie-going audiences, especially the Joe & Jane Popcorns out there (thanks, Jeffrey Wells) who spoke loudly last weekend with a Cinemascore of “D”, seem resistant to anything that remotely pushes the boundaries of content and form. Just look at the top 20 grossing films from 2013; there are only three that might fit the bill as being auteur driven. The Counselor is as elliptical in style to that of Olivier Assayas’s criminally under seen neo-noir Boarding Gate or to the previously mentioned No Country for Old Men, but the difference is that The Counselor has an even more fatal, lethal endgame, and potentially goes further with the practice of withholding “key” story information and the skipping-over of easily identifiable “plot-points.” Remember when Brolin got killed off-screen in No Country, and how bracing that was to have it presented in such a nonchalant manner, almost like the Coen brothers didn’t even care? There’s some of that spirit in The Counselor, as the film becomes more and more about the who than the why, about the little conversations as oppose to the big ones.
One of the many things that will throw most audiences off with The Counselor is the way that the characters speak. To complain about the highly-stylized writing and line delivery would be to immediately dismiss, discount, or conveniently forget the last 30-40 years of cinema, with distinctive voices (to only name a few) like Mamet, Allen, Pinter, Kubrick, Malick, Mann, and Anderson (both P.T. and Wes) consistently writing in a manner that is more stylized than realistic. A movie is a movie – it’s not real life, it shouldn’t always have to approximate the “realism” of something, and the way that the characters speak in The Counselor expresses just as much as who the characters are as it does describe what they are doing. It’s also interesting to note that McCarthy dispatches with any ideas of showing the drug deal in any traditional fashion right from the get-go; when the film starts, the plot is in full swing, with Fassbender’s character already having had numerous conversations to get him to the point that he’s at when we first meet him, and the strings have already been pulled by other characters to have the plot spin so wildly out of (in) control. You’ll have to see the movie, of course, to truly understand what I mean, but without spoiling any of the sadistic fun, this is one of those narratives where someone, somewhere is calling the shots while a wide variety of people never truly know what’s going on. If it seems like I’m avoiding giving a proper plot summary, well, I just don’t feel it’s necessary. You’ve seen the ads: it’s Breaking Bad with big Hollywood stars, from the director Gladiator and Prometheus. Someone makes a deal with the Mexican Cartel, the deal goes south, and all hell breaks loose. It’s just that the brilliance of The Counselor comes from the ways that information is presented (or not presented!), the way characters look at one another, and how the “Counselor” of the piece (Fassbender) is always asking other people for help and advice.
When it comes to Ridley Scott’s involvement, there’s much to be said. He’s always been attacked as a “style over substance” guy (maybe not with the same ferocity that his late brother, Tony, was attacked), too interested in smoke and fire and razzle-dazzle. It probably stems from the fact that people view him as a “director for hire” as he’s not a credited writer on his features. I’ve never gotten that slam, or any other “style over substance” slam on any other filmmaker – filmmaking is supposed to be stylish and innovative, it’s supposed to show you something new and fresh (or at least it should attempt). Otherwise, what’s the point? In The Counselor, because everything from a visual stand-point is so precise and honed (a formal nod to the Coen brothers possibly?), one might overlook just how much is going on underneath the slick surface. Without providing spoilers, McCarthy has littered his brutally poetic screenplay with digressions on death, men, women, the male fear of women, sex, desire, mother vs. whore, impotence, wealth – it’s all there for the taking if you’re interested in digging a little deeper than normal. And while Scott has long been a premier visual stylist (Blade Runner is a certifiable work of painterly art and the widescreen compositions in Kingdom of Heaven are worthy of a museum), he does some of the most un-showy work of his career in The Counselor, and as a result, there’s an elegant, piercing quality to the visuals. Gone are the arid, dusty stylings of Black Hawk Down and Body of Lies and the deep, burnished qualities of American Gangster and Hannibal. In The Counselor, Scott, along with his ace cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (who, it should be mentioned, shot numerous features for Tony Scott, and recently shot Prometheus for Scott), concentrate on tight close-ups, exact framing, and a more natural, relaxed color palette. Scott knows that McCarthy’s words on the page is what’s driving the story forward, so the more classical approach to his direction is welcome and smart. But never forget – this is Ridley Scott we’re talking about, the man who fed Ray Liotta his own brains and had Dr. Lectre feed a child some of Liotta’s brains at the end of his grand Guginol black comedy grotesquerie Hannibal. When Scott wants to get up-close and personal with arterial spray he’s just as adept as Haneke or Tarantino or Winding-Refn in that department.
The performances are uniformly excellent, with Diaz and Bardem registering strongest. For her part, Diaz has never been this icy or cruel, and it was terrific to see her sink her teeth into such a wicked portrait of insanity. The already infamous sex-scene-with-automobile is big and showy and funny but it’s the rest of her performance that seals the deal; look at her close-ups and see the nastiness sinking in. It’s wonderful. Bardem adds another indelible baddie to his rogue’s gallery of villains, but here, he’s in a much different key than he was as the homicidal man with a bowl-cut in No Country or the sneering megalomaniac from Skyfall. His reaction shots and line delivery during Diaz’s bout with the car are nothing short of hysterical, and the way that he imbued his character with a sense of “it’s coming for me” misfortune did a lot to actually make him one of the more sympathetic characters of the piece. Fassbender starts off all sleazily charming and you think this is a guy maybe worth rooting for, but then you see how he’s really a self-serving jerk who clearly knows he’s getting in over his head but then does nothing to stop it. Watching Fassbender lose control of the situation, a situation he foolishly thinks he’s in complete control of, is one of the many sick pleasures that this film affords. Pitt must love the fact that he gets to play these little “character” bits now that he’s settled into his absurdly impressive career, and as the greasy middleman to Fassbender and Bardem’s dealings, he brings cruel humor and cocky swagger to every scene he appears in. For her part, and she’s not seen much, Cruz does exactly what McCarthy wanted her to do: represent pure, unfettered, innocent beauty. Familiar faces show up in bit parts, with Rosie Perez, Bruno Ganz, Ruben Blades, Dean Norris and John Leguizamo all owning their cameos, and Natalie Dormer proving to be an alluring distraction just as she did in Ron Howard’s recent Formula-1 drama Rush.
There are two movies that The Counselor recalls: Anton Corbijns spare and beautiful The American and Sam Peckinpah’s utterly nihilistic and sad Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Much like in The American, Scott and McCarthy smartly subvert the audiences’ expectations based on preconceived notions predicated upon genre: the chase has to be here, it needs to end there, this character needs to be killed by that character, etc-etc. And as in Peckinpah’s down and dirty Alfredo Garcia, the narrative in The Counselor comes to a rational (however disturbing and bleak) conclusion that has to be considered in many contexts as “audience-unfriendly” or “morally reprehensible.” It’s not the job of cinema or of filmmakers to only tell stories about the morally just and dignified. Part of the kinky kick of a movie like The Counselor is getting to spend time with venal, nasty people, far removed from the norm, and then getting a chance to watch their lives unravel. Because the cast is peppered with sexy faces and familiar names and because the trailer has been cut to emphasize the three or four scenes of violence/action, audiences are not going to be prepared for what’s in store. It’s The American or The Grey or Haywire or Killing them Softly or Drive all over again – auteur driven films masquerading as general audience pleasers. I love it when Hollywood has the guts to turn out stuff that’s challenging and rewarding, and there’s something to be said for 20th Century Fox letting Scott and McCarthy get away with a finish that nearly matches the gut-wrenching climax of David Fincher’s immortal serial killer thriller Seven. The Counselor is a film for film buffs, the sort of movie for people who enjoy spending two hours on the dark side, and who can allow themselves the chance to act as a spectator to truly horrifying events, where, from the outset, it was clear that there would never be a happy ending. It’s easily one of Scott’s best films of his already legendary career, and one of the best pictures of the year.