The Counselor

March 9, 2014

Note: I have seen the 20-odd-minute longer Extended Cut and not the Theatrical version. Also: More spoilers than usual. Not that it matters.  

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The Counselor doesn’t care what you think of it.  It just doesn’t.  It’s an admirable quality in this instance, and doubly so when you consider the pedigree: First screenplay by Pulitzer Prize winner Cormac McCarthy (who has entered the cinematic pantheon to some degree when his book No Country Old Men was adapted into a Best Picture winner), directed by Ridley Scott, supporting roles for Brad Pitt and Cameron Diaz and a host of character actors to boot.  Despite all this, or maybe because of its gravitas-heavy position before a camera began to roll, it really just doesn’t give a damn what you think.  None of which is to say it’s a good movie, though it is certainly an interesting one, even in a somewhat limited “your mileage may vary” sort of way.  If you can handle (or, preferably, relish) the hard-bitten cynicism that dwarfs most modern noirs, this might be for you.  If you can handle long exchanges that probe the nature of existence to varying degrees of success, then it might be for you.  If you can appreciate that the McGuffin spends the entire film traveling in a septic truck – yes, the thing everyone wants is submerged in shit – then this might be the film for you.

Personally, I can’t really get on board with most of its nihilism, though some of it is very well written.  It’s important, then, to not get bogged down in the dialogue as a series of deep, elemental truths about “the world we live in” but rather to see it as an extension of the entire film’s cinema of emptiness.  Michael Fassbender’s Counselor (never named anything else, of course) is to some degree the only vaguely “moral” character here, excluding his fiancée played by Penelope Cruz, though she’s not much of a character.  No one really is, when it comes down to it, but Counselor is after all who the movie is titled after and he also has something akin to a traditional arc (naïve man has dalliance with world he can’t possibly comprehend and is brought low).  This might seem totally unsuccessful from a “hero” perspective, though it’s crucial to the piece that the film explicitly states (over and over again) what a naïve idiot he is.  “They know you’re stupid, they just don’t know how stupid.” Bardem’s garishly dressed drug trafficker and best friend Rainer tells Counselor.  Well, yes, he is stupid.  Everyone is to some degree or another.

It’s not really about the narrative, of course, and I say that with some degree of confidence if only because neither McCarthy nor Scott seem to care about it.  It’s almost completely absent save the broad strokes: Counselor uses his friends to get in on a drug deal, it goes bad, cartel goes after him.  The most interesting thing about the film, then, is that it seems to care about the little particulars without ever regarding the whole.  We spend a fair amount of time watching the drugs move from packaging to the septic truck.  We watch a biker get the keys, then get tracked down to a third party. Some other party attacks the third party and then we follow them all the way to delivery.  It has, outside of the initial “something went wrong” bit, absolutely nothing to do with the main characters – it doesn’t even properly reveal itself as part of the larger machinations of the film’s obvious and villainous mover, Diaz’s Malkina.  If you consider the motorcycle beheading, it’s a lot of effort for something that could have been done in about 20 seconds of screen time.  The men watch the kid with the bike.  One of them goes into a motorcycle dealership, measures the height of the motorcycle, has some words with the salesmen, then drives off.  He sets up a truck on the side of the highway, adjusts a pole to a certain level then sets up a metal wire and attaches to a post across the street.  He adjusts the lights on the truck to face the oncoming traffic, and then he waits with a can of soda.  It’s the best scene in the movie, and it says more about the world of The Counselor than any of the speeches, no matter how eloquent or entertaining, that the various philosopher-scumbags deliver.

Particular attention is paid to the high living of the Westerners who are toying with a dark and seedy world of money and vices they can’t imagine.  They’re playing at gangster, essentially, which itself is a long running cinematic trope that was particularly prevalent during the American Indie revival of the 90s, a period in which this film would slot perfectly, down to the seemingly pointless digressions such as Dean Norris and John Leguizamo discussing a body in a barrel that has no connection to anything else other than strictly thematic.

Placing the film’s perspective on women would involve going much farther back than the 90s, and its one of the peculiarities of The Counselor just how baldly regressive its attitudes towards gender are.  Reiner spends most of his time giving speeches about women that are impossibly infantile in their clichéd masculinity, and though we might be tempted to resign that to ‘character’ rather than ‘authorial’, it’s very quickly backed up by just about everything else that happens, from the Catholic Virginal aura of sweetness of Cruz’s Laura to the insanely over-the-top Diaz, who is perfectly cast from a looks perspective (suntanned and craggy with gaudy jewelry and garish outfits) but not much in the acting department (this might but unfair on Diaz as I’m not sure who could have pulled anything out of the role as it is written, but I’m certain she doesn’t).

The second half of the film is where it takes off and Scott can have his dispassionate fun with the truly gruesome.  Wisely scaling back the operatics of his equally over-done gorefest Hannibal, the films conclusion is a relentless dirge of absurd, matter-of-fact death far more interested in viscera than the visceral.  As it, perhaps, should be.  In many ways this is the ideal the version of this story, as rank as pointless as it might be.  For all its grand speeches about accepting death and this world and our world and any world, this film can be summed up neatly with the shot of Cruz’s corpse being tossed in a massive dump.  It eschews a third act of heroism or vengeance for an extended march towards the inevitable, and in the end, this film is about treating everything in it as grotesquely disposable.

-M

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