The Counselor appears to be one of the first big box office and critical casualties of awards season. Currently sitting at 35 % on Rotten Tomatoes and 49 on metacritic, with a tepid 8 million dollar opening weekend in North America, to call it a critical and commercial bomb would probably be understating matters. While this isn’t quite a disaster on the level of the almost certain to be Razzie decorated Naomi Watts vehicle Diana from director Oliver Hirschbeigel, and The Counselor does have a few champions (Mahnola Dargis of The New York Times being a notable one, and Awardswatch’s own Vincent Smetana being another), the general consensus has been that Sir Ridley has delivered a damp squib of a movie. One that inspired Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir to write a piece dubbing The Counselor “the worst movie ever made” (hyperbole much, Andrew?). Whether one wants to argue that The Counselor is utter garbage or a misunderstood masterpiece, it’s probably safe to say it’s now unlikely to be a big player in the coming awards season.
On paper, The Counselor looked like one of the few “can’t miss” prospects of the year. With a legendary director like Scott at the helm, the highly touted first original screenplay from Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Cormac McCarthy (writer of No Country For Old Men, The Road and Blood Meridian amongst other modern classics) and that cast….Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem and Michael Fassbender. If you were to conduct a straw poll asking people to name the 3 most exciting, unpredictable and watchable leading men working in movies today, it goes without saying that all three of these men would figure prominently on such a poll. The mention of any one of these actors appearing in a film is enough to spark interest and curiosity in any moviegoer. The combination of all three of them together should have been irresistible. Then you add Oscar winners like Penelope Cruz into the equation, alongside the sorely underrated Cameron Diaz (a gifted comic actress, who like Sandra Bullock in recent years, should probably already have been belatedly given her dues as a serious dramatic actress a long time ago, particularly for her excellent work in Vanilla Sky and an incredible vanity free performance in Being John Malkovich). I’m fairly sure many awards season prognosticators already had The Counselor pencilled in for an easy SAG ensemble nomination, based on the pedigree of the actors alone.
That’s unlikely to be happening now. The Counselor will now be chalked up in the “disappointment” column for Ridley Scott. Something that seems to be happening with almost alarming frequency for the great man. Prometheus was generally regarded as one of the big letdowns of the 2012 movie calendar. Fans were salivating at the prospect of Ridley Scott, the mastermind behind Blade Runner and Alien, returning to the science fiction genre. Scott has long been worshipped in the “geek community” as sort of a Godfather of modern science fiction, even though sci-fi has compromised a miniscule part of his overall filmography. The aesthetics of Blade Runner in particular have had a pervasive influence on the genre, with the noirish future cityscape of the movie developed by Scott and his production designers being lazily cribbed by numerous sci-fi directors trying to bring some of that Blade Runner sophistication and elan to their own generic product.
The excitement and hype for Prometheus was also because it saw Scott return to the world of Alien. As first envisioned by Scott, the world of Alien was a stripped down, functionally realistic future world run by corporations. Everything felt completely feasible and plausible and within the realms of “real science”, as opposed to the more fanciful science fiction fantasy then being popularised by George Lucas’ Star Wars, with it’s quasi-mystical mumbo jumbo about the “force”. Alien was gritty, grimy and felt real. As a movie, it was fairly close to nirvana to the science fiction purists. Though Scott declined to direct the sequel, Aliens, it landed in the very capable hands of James Cameron, who built upon the blueprint given by Scott to make a worthy successor.
However, the law of diminishing returns began to kick in, and the Alien franchise became just that: a mere franchise. A cash cow by the studios, with little care or quality control involved. Though a highly talented director like David Fincher (near the start of his career) was hired to direct Alien 3, Fincher was given little control over the final product. Apparently, the studio just wanted to sell more toys and video games. By the time we got to the execrable Aliens vs Predator, we’d reached the nadir of comic book inspired nonsense that had transformed a once fascinating world and concept into a disposable fast food joint. Alien had become the McDonalds of sci-fi. Something to be mostly avoided.
So the return of Ridley Scott into this universe was met with something close to euphoria by the geek set. Ridley Scott was supposed to save the Alien universe and restore it to its former glory. But Prometheus simply could not live up to the hype, and was met with a muted response at best. Many chose to lay the blame at the feet of the screenwriter and well-known geek punching bag Damon Lindelof for producing a muddled, unfocused story, but the end result was another promising project from Ridley Scott that failed to live up to expectations.
On the heels of the similarly disappointing Robin Hood and a rare Leonardo Dicaprio flop in Body Of Lies, you could say Scott is going through something of a cold spell. His last unqualified success was probably 2007’s American Gangster, the 1970’s set gangland thriller that starred Denzel Washington as the drug-lord Frank Lucas, and Scott’s most frequent acting collaborator Russell Crowe, as the cop on his tail. American Gangster ticked all the boxes; a worldwide gross in excess of 250 million dollars, widespread critical praise, and major awards recognition, including Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations for Best Picture, and a SAG nomination for Best Ensemble. With an impressive 7.8 score, American Gangster currently stands as Scott’s 4th highest rated film on IMDB (behind only Blade Runner, Gladiator and Alien).
While the film did not receive as many major Academy Award nominations as expected, that can almost be chalked down to a simple case of bad timing. Had The Departed (another gangland thriller from the master of the genre, Martin Scorsese) not won Best Picture and Best Director the previous year, American Gangster would likely have seemed a much fresher proposition for Oscar voters. But even so, it was a highly respectable awards run for Scott, the likes of which he hasn’t seen in awhile.
Before American Gangster, in the 2000’s, Scott had previously scored impressive box office and awards runs with Black Hawk Down and Gladiator, a Best Picture winner. But those type of runs now seem to be increasingly rare for Scott, even though on paper, most of his projects seem to have the right pedigree.
Looking forward, Scott’s next film Exodus seems like a project that could possibly restore some of the lustre to Scott’s recent output, and put him firmly back in the awards derby (he is also apparently circling Prometheus 2, though I sincerely doubt that will reverse his current fortunes). Starring Oscar-winner Christian Bale as Moses, Exodus is a retelling of the biblical “ten commandments” story. With a leading man as dedicated as Bale and an epic story suited to Scott’s penchant for intricate world-building, you’d think this would be hard to go wrong but we’ve said that before with some of Scott’s work, so it’s pretty much impossible to tell how things will pan out. Could be another Gladiator. Or it could be another The Counselor.
There is also some negative attention being raised by the curious casting of some of the main characters. Fine actor though he may be, but Joel Edgerton (cast as Ramses) is not exactly the first person that springs to mind when I think “Egyptian Pharaoh”. If Scott manages to pull that off, then perhaps he’ll deserve another major awards run, and the Best Director Oscar that has managed to elude him so far. – Alex K. Kay