REVIEW: Philosophy at the Border in ‘The Counselor’
Here’s a testament as to what a misfire full of promise Ridley Scott’s The Counselor is: I actually had a dream last night after seeing it that I was in the editing suite with the director working on another cut of the film. He already had a second version on hand that followed a proper thriller format, but I still insisted on twenty minutes being shaved. “Hurry!” I yelled. “It’s too late for North America, but we can still save it for Europe and the Rest of the World.”
Ridley Scott. An original script by Cormac McCarthy. Michael Fassbender. Javier Bardem. Cameron Diaz with cheetah’s spots tattooed down her back. Penélope Cruz. Myriad other wonderful ingredients. What could possibly screw this up?
It’s entirely the script’s fault. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, where you can single out one element of a film, especially the fundamental element of any narrative regardless of medium. “Having an author adapt his own work is the kiss of death,” an agent at William Morris once told me. In this case, there appears to be no original source material for McCarthy to adapt (I keep calling him ‘McCormac’), so there’s no excuse that he was too close to it to get enough distance, which is usually why having an author adapt his or her own book is a mistake; the film is not the book and shouldn’t try to be. He was obviously indulged way beyond what is reasonable — he has an executive producer credit, which doesn’t mean much — but a writer of his stature can make substantial demands. Still, a director of Ridley Scott’s stature should have been able to trump McCarthy.
To be fair, if I remove myself from the overall effect of the film and reduce it back to its screenplay, The Counselor must have looked exciting on paper. “I’ve never read anything quite like it,” Fassbender must have told Ridley Scott when they were working on Prometheus and the actor was offered the role (I’m imagining that’s when it happened). Unlike other adaptations of McCarthy’s work — The Road was scripted by Joe Penhall, No Country for Old Men by the Coen Brothers themselves — this film retains the mannered, philosophical dialogue of his books. And it had might as well be Shakespeare for how it works on the screen.
When you’re reading McCarthy, you are drawn into his world by the singular, skewed beauty of his prose, which frames the dialogue; you allow the unnaturalness of what the characters say to each other because you have bought into in his particular reality, or you would have already put the book down. But the world Scott creates doesn’t match McCarthy’s prose — the director’s signature thick veneer of smoky, hazy glamour suffused across the screen is oddly too ponderous, as slick as it is. I don’t know that McCarthy will ever find a more suitable pairing than the Coen Brothers, who are so adept at creating the sort of skewed parallel Americana reality the author requires for translation to the screen.
I’m still not sure exactly what transpires in The Counselor; McCarthy seems to have been so intent on being oblique that he lost the plot. Fassbender plays a lawyer madly in love with Laura (Cruz), for whom he buys an excessively expensive ring in Amsterdam, that comes with the first unhealthy dollop of strange philosophy. The counselor then gets involved with some sort of drug deal (to pay for the ring?) with a shady nightclub owner named Reiner (Bardem) and maybe another shady guy named Westray (Brad Pitt doing exactly the same shtick as 12 Years a Slave, except with different facial hair). And then there’s Malkina (Diaz), Reiner’s sociopathic girlfriend. Somehow. And she has philosophies about truth and stuff (“It has no temperature”). Anyway, it all takes place in west Texas on the border with Juárez, which as we all know is the most dangerous place on earth, and if you don’t already know then you are repeatedly reminded verbally, except those reminders don’t pay off in the end with the action.
No payoff. In a thriller about drug smuggling. I call that daring… I guess.
Indeed, from the acquisition of the diamond in the beginning there is gobs of philosophizing. Even the Mexicans are in command of a high form of English that thuds from their mouths, each word a heavy brick. And what every character except for the counselor is saying is entirely specious with little relevance to the story, much less life itself. At a certain point I thought the counselor was crying because he just didn’t understand what everyone was saying to him, much less why. There are Jim Jarmusch films that make more sense than this.
What a waste of talent, and by that I mean the camera and art departments. The sets in particular are stunning, a pleasant distraction while everyone is gassing each other with ridiculousness. Diaz’s styling alone — those silver fingernails, those Azzedine Alaia-inspired outfits — almost makes it worth seeing the film, but save the money and two hours of your life and just watch the trailer; most of the best parts of the film are in it. It is perhaps the most misleading trailer ever cut. After Prometheus, of course. Well done, there, Ridley.
It’s an odd sign of the times that I said to myself midway through, Ah, finally: A film I can pan. I was beginning to feel this current run of superlative movies was so inorganic it was making me uncomfortable. But that’s wrong, of course; you should expect quality every time you go to the theater. There are a couple of films out there I should have seen instead: All Is Lost, starring Robert Redford first and foremost, and Cannes winner Blue is the Warmest Color.
A friend of mine invited me see Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa last night, but I declined because it’s not the sort of film my readers would want to know about. When I left The Counselor I texted him to say how much I regretted my decision. Please don’t make the same mistake.