Monday, October 28, 2013

The Counselor (*)

Directed by Ridley Scott


The plot of The Counselor is complicated in a way that leaves you with very little enthusiasm to actually figure it out. There's nothing engrossing about this film and these characters. It's story is not just bleak, it's apocalyptic - it's drama is second-rate Shakespearean, it's attempts at flourish feeling more like camp. It's a film made by a director and a screenwriter that feel that any message is incredibly important as long as they're the ones delivering it. Their clout allows them to pack the film with stars across the board; a hoard of Oscar winners, nominees, future Oscar nominees and Cameron Diaz. The trust these actors place in these veteran artists seems implicit, which is a shame. The result of their efforts is a two-hour megaphone rant scripted by two men on the wrong side of seventy-five screaming about how cruel, empty and inherently evil the world is. No country for old men, indeed. Let's hope it stays that way.

This is the twenty-first movie from director Ridley Scott who is one of the premiere names that Hollywood has to offer from its directing branch. I'm not sure he's made a movie a great movie since 1982's Blade Runner, but more importantly, I'm not sure he's even made a movie worth watching since 2003's Matchstick Men. He's a professional, knowing that the key to consistent commercial success is staying out of the way of your cast and praying upon the audience's greatest desires and gravest fears. But lately his films have felt so uninteresting and in the case of American Gangster, I found his need to soft-soap a truly evil character morally questionable. Prometheus was a horror show, but not the kind you were expecting and The Counselor continues the trend of fascinating failure. His new film's schlock philosophizing and overacting probably hits a proverbial low point for Scott. At least American Gangster was a hit and Prometheus simply failed for being too much of what it was trying to be. The Counselor is just plain bad.

The counselor of consequence is Michael Fassbender who has spent the last three years in a perpetual career upswing that hits a dead end here. The hope is that as 12 Years a Slave slowly opens wider and wider across the country, that that is the slice if Fassbender chosen to be seen by audiences. Fassbender's character in this film is never given a true name, even his girlfriend, Laura (Penelope Cruz), doesn't mention it. The counselor decides that he wants to place himself within the dangerous world of the Mexican drug trade, hoping the giant payday will fund a lavish lifestyle for Laura who he hopes to marry. He does this despite frequent warnings from both his eccentric main partner and club owner, Reiner (Javier Bardem), as well as their other partner and middleman, Westray (Brad Pitt). Both men explain in explicit detail the kind of horrors that these Juarez drug lords can extract on their victims. The one thing that this movie loves more than melodrama is heavy foreshadowing.

Adding to the fire is Reiner's fiery, deceptively ambitious girlfriend, Malkina (Cameron Diaz). She's a complete monstrosity. In one scene, she climbs onto the hood of Reiner's car and makes love to the windshield; in another, she goes into confession with a Catholic priest (an epic waste of Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez) only to question him about sex and causing him to walk out of the booth. Her back is tattooed in a cheetah print and her and Reiner own a couple of their own cheetahs that they keep as recreational pets (no seriously). If we're doing comparison shopping, Malkina is meant to be Counselor's Anton Chigurh, but Diaz can't handle the amount of psychosexual complexity that this character entails (though I'm not totally sure how much she could've tapped), and it doesn't help that Scott directs this performance as if it's in a different movie. Most of Diaz's scenes end up playing as funny, and it's borderline sad because I realized most of the audience is laughing at her. I've always found Diaz to be a compelling screen presence, but her quality as an actress has always wavered. This performance, especially in this movie, isn't doing her any favors.

If you've ever read anything by McCarthy, you'll know that everything goes wrong. People start dying in troughs and those deaths are treated with sardonic dismissal, the price of the business. By the end, all of the horrific violence starts make you feel emotionally even, and when the biggest tragedy occurs you no longer really care. But The Counselor's biggest flaw in my mind is the inclusion of Brad Pitt playing what is essentially the most meaningless character in a movie this year. It's one of those lazy Pitt performances where his eyes flutter and you can see him doing his best to remember each line before it comes out of his mouth. Remembering that Pitt was also the major cog of the least interesting segment in 12 Years a Slave and I'd say that this has been a tough two weeks for Pitt's reputation with me. Let it be known that I thought Pitt should have won the Oscar for Moneyball and the very fact that he produced 12 Years makes him a central figure in that movie's success, even if his performance is kind of bad. But he mails in enough performances like this on a regular basis.

Ridley Scott is already one of my least favorite directors, so perhaps I went into The Counselor with my knives sharpened, but I insist that the quality of the cast and the inclusion of McCarthy really made me more optimistic about a Scott film than I had been for a very long time. Cormac McCarthy is one of the finest novelists of the last hundred years. He's won a National Book Award, a Pulitzer Prize and is frequently mentioned amongst candidates for a Nobel prize. His works have produced at least one brilliant movie, the Coen Brothers' No Country For Old Men, as well as a string of other good movies like The Road and All The Pretty Horses. I mention all of these facts as a way to say that McCarthy is a living legend who has earned the right to write a screenplay and expect to have it produced by a major Hollywood filmmaker. That being said, anyone who has been subjected to having to sit through The Counselor has also earned the right to request that McCarthy never write another screenplay again.

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