Review: The Counselor (Ridley Scott, 2013)
I had read Cormac McCarthy’s script for The Counselor earlier this year. Like you will no doubt hear in other reviews of the film itself, it’s not a story that is easy to follow. And I have to agree. Sometimes, one may foolishly wonder if the screenwriter himself may know what’s going on. But it was an intoxicating, albeit dense read, which overall I found quite enjoyable (having read the script, I assure you that even though it’s easy to proclaim that not everything lines up in the chaos of the film, it actually does). Having heard the press about the limited screenings, the fairly nonexistent premiere rollout, and the rather discouraging reviews, coupled with what I already procured from reading McCarthy’s work, I tempered my expectations immensely and proceeded with caution when watching the film tonight. And, that’s why it pains me to hear the early news that this may already be a box-office dud, because frankly, flaws aside, I fucking loved this movie.
If you want to go in cold, I’d suggest to stop reading this particular paragraph. Not that the spoiler moments in the film would have been as shocking as they were during the read. I was rather surprised at how early the movie showed its cards, but even more taken aback at how little it diminished the overall production. But if you want a little guidance or warning, which may help you wade through the complexity of the plot, it’s pretty simple: a drug deal goes terribly wrong and everyone involved works within their means to survive its wake. Michael Fassbender plays an attorney simply known as the title suggests, The Counselor. He leads a pretty decent lifestyle, complete with a gorgeous girlfriend Laura (Penélope Cruz). But he wants to give her the world, and that comes at a price, so he joins a $20M drug deal which includes transporting cocaine across the U.S./Mexican border, along with associates Reiner (Javier Bardem) and Westray (Brad Pitt). At one point a client’s son (Richard Cabral) becomes part of the equation, and while it seems easy to connect the dots as to why, it’s never made completely clear (or it went over my head). The Counselor becomes responsible for a device attached to a sewage truck carrying the shipment in question, which is stolen by one faction, who temporarily loses it to another. The story is meager on details and it’s quite easy to lose sight of who is in possession of the goods and has control, but it begs the question if handholding the audience would have essentially helped any. The film itself isn’t so much about what happens, but how people react when all they have left to hold onto are their wits and instinct. And one can’t deny that there are some truly great lines throughout (one of my favorites is when one character is called cold, the response is: “The truth has no temperature”). And there is keenly added juxtaposition between excess (diamond-encrusted collars for a pair of pet cheetahs, jetting off to Amsterdam to purchase an exorbitantly-priced engagement ring), and the ramifications of the pursuit of greed.
I’ll concede the frustrating impenetrability of the script, and the cynicism of this world is one I wouldn’t dare wade in for very long. But if you’re able to overlook its shortcomings, there is immeasurable pleasure to the technique and production values. After all, Ridley Scott knows how to direct a thriller and has made this $25M production appear three times its cost. Production designer Arthur Max has a long history with Scott, as well as a few early David Fincher productions like Se7en and Panic Room, and knows full well how to meet the demands required of a slick production. Most of the costumes were provided by fashion houses, yet Janty Yates must get some kind of credit for picking the simple, yet profoundly employed suits and dresses. And, Dariusz Wolski, who dates all the way back to The Crow and Romeo Is Bleeding, is a perfect match for Scott’s cleanly executed, high-tech tone. Editor Pietro Scalia (who won for JFK decades ago) impeccably pastes all of the exploits together and actually achieves an impossible, but detectable cohesion. And Daniel Pemberton’s score is appropriately restrained. If McCarthy can be faulted for an overly existential abstractness that feels deliberately and ridiculously esoteric, then Scott and crew get bonus points for pulling it altogether as precisely and palpable as possible, while lining the escapade with a seductive grimness. There’s also a gore factor that is quite graphically and deliciously executed, so to speak. And, you’re not going to hear any complaints from yours truly on this regard.
Expectedly, the characters don’t feel like people as they do archetypes. You have a lot of greedy men here who think with their dicks and not their brains and must pay for it. The women don’t come off any better. But, like with the behind-the-scenes crew, you have a host of characters who invest their lot with an empathy and nuance that is quite striking. Fassbender adeptly captures an ambitious man living beyond his means, as well as the desperation which accompanies one very bad choice. Bardem adds another eclectic creation to his already impressive oeuvre and gives one of the best performances of the year. Cruz goes beyond the call-of-duty to imbue her Laura with an innocence and sympathy that would be quite painful in a story that was within a closer reach. And the character work from Bruno Ganz, Rosie Perez, and Natalie Dormer is exceptional.
At the center of the cast is Cameron Diaz as Malkina. Originally, I thought this would be in the actresses’ wheelhouse and she’d hit a homerun. The part, as written, keys into some subtle, comic overtones, which she has expertly handled in the past. But those roles were overtly comedic, and The Counselor offered her the opportunity to delve into subject matter much darker than her Julie in Vanilla Sky for instance, and stretch herself into fresh territory. However, here she plays Malkina’s one-note as written: severely detached and broad. You can’t really fault her here, as she doesn’t embarrass herself, only services the plot (there are much worse sins in acting). However, a minor gripe would be Diaz’ inconsistent accent. She sometimes possess an endearing affected lisp that is difficult to place but sounds very similar to say, Sarah Paulson’s regular voice, but unfortunately it often disappears and if she isn’t resorting to a normal vocality, at least one time hits a British note (her character is from Barbados, though in the script she’s written as South-American, for whatever that’s worth). Was she up to the task? Perhaps not. But what she lacks is negligible, as the part is so ridiculously over-the-top. There’s one scene in particular involving a car (which will probably get the most talk) that would be a hard-sell for just about any actress. I’m left asking: could Glenn Close circa 1987 have done any better?
Do I recommend this? Yes, with reservations. If you can sidestep the bigger picture and revel in the parts and not the sum, that is the best frame of mind you can put yourself in to view this. But I acknowledge that the chances aren’t on your side. The film works, for me and I imagine a few others, as an exercise in style that one might expect from Scott, and here he is in premium form. The Counselor isn’t at the same level of quality as Alien, Blade Runner, or Thelma & Louise, but this is honestly as close Scott has gotten to matching their collective greatness ever. I’ve been wondering for a while now if he has lost his touch. And now I have my answer: he hasn’t. There is plenty here for a cinephile to appreciate.