The Counselor

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Writer: Cormac McCarthy
Director: Ridley Scott
Starring:  Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz
Review: 4 stars (of 5)

One of America’s most important living writers, Cormac McCarthy (whose novels became the films The Road and No Country for Old Men) puts an original screenplay in the hands of directorial demigod Ridley Scott.  Scott goes and recruits a powerhouse cast. The result, not surprisingly, is challenging, cold, but excellent.

McCarthy the screenwriter is every bit as existential and emotionally distant as McCarthy the novelist.  The simple test would be to ask whether you enjoyed the Coen Brothers’ dark, marvelous No Country for Old Men.  This film is in many ways a companion piece to that movie, though it’s perhaps even more distancing to the audience.

Almost from the beginning, you realize that McCarthy’s script is stripped to the essence.  Every line of dialogue has meaning, as characters get existential even in apparent small talk.  Critics would say–and are saying–that the existential and philosophical digressions are clunky.  They are no fun, but they have a point.  While the film is marvelously constructed (with anecdotes and asides in the first 20 minutes all paying off in the last 20), magnificently clever structure is something you savor in a book.  In a film that always moves at 24 frames per second, you don’t get to process and enjoy the writing at your own speed, or flip back to double-check a reference or pause to weigh its impact.  In a sense, then, the film is too good, and too structured, a piece of writing to work as perfect cinema.  But that just means it will reward second viewings, and it still works like gangbusters on first watch.

Ridley Scott is a master of environment.  The colors and textures he evokes are magnificent–that was the great, hypnotic strength of last year’s failed Alien prequel, and here it’s joined with the solid, single-minded script that Prometheus sorely lacked.  His actual setups and camera movements struck me as fairly basic, compared to the environments itself.  Letting the setting and the cast speak for themselves, I thought.

c01 The cast is terrific.  Javier Bardem, so creepy in No Country, is a comic delight here, with just a subtle note of tragedy.  Brad Pitt plays a familiar Brad Pitt character, but plays it well.  Cameron Diaz plays a hardened, manipulative beauty, and sometimes McCarthy’s dialogue doesn’t fit well in her mouth, but she’s definitely a surprise here.  Penelope Cruz has a relatively small role, but plays it well.  A scene over dinner with Michael Fassbender is played with a level of subtle emotional realism that’s beautiful to behold.  And Fassbender, who just keeps turning in fantastic performances, goes all out here as a lawyer caught up in some shady dealings that go wrong.  Really, really wrong.

Apart from the emotional distance (despite great emotional moments delivered by fine actors) and the overly philosophical lines of dialogue, the film is open to criticism for oblique storytelling.  In short, Fassbender, called only “Counselor” throughout the film, goes in on a major drug deal, hoping for an easy score.  Something goes wrong with the delivery, caused by forces unknown, and then more things go wrong for more people, and if you start losing track, you’re to be forgiven, because while McCarthy puts absolutely everything you need to know into the story (eventually), he doesn’t make it easy to digest.

c02And then you’ve got to have a stomach for McCarthy’s world view, in which there are no moral values.  Early on, we see a cheetah run down a jackrabbit.  As the film unwinds and crimes are committed, hearts are broken and double crosses are made, it’s important to remember that while the sinister forces of the drug cartels are mythologized as the ultimate evil, these mostly unseen powers are more like natural forces to McCarthy, like gravity.  That cheetah isn’t evil, and gravity isn’t evil for pulling us all down.

Tellingly, we never learn exactly why the Counselor would get involved in a drug deal.  We never learn what a man sworn to the law thinks about helping to put $20 million in cocaine onto the streets of an American city.  We do learn that he’s deeply, truly in love with a woman who knows nothing of this new secret life, neither love nor avarice carry any emotional weight as each character simply behaves, like water running downhill, according to his or her nature.

No Country for Old Men closed memorably (and, for many, confusingly) with an oblique, existential monologue from Tommy Lee Jones on the nature of a good man in a world some would call evil, and that McCarthy perhaps would call supremely indifferent.  In The Counselor, McCarthy closes with a similar monologue from what we moralists would call a darker character, and it makes a fine bookend to that earlier film.

This is challenging, somewhat artificial cinema, but rewarding nonetheless.  Early reviews are not kind to this movie, but it deserves better of its audience.