Mild spoilers for The Counselor follow:
THE COUNSELOR (2013)
Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Cormac McCarthy
“I don't know what I thought about it. I still don't. It was too gynecological to be sexy."
-- 'Reiner' as played by Javier Bardem.
Is The Counselor a good movie?
Hmm. You'll have to come back to me on that one. Or not. I may be none the wiser about it in a month than I am now, having just seen it.
Is The Counselor a good movie when judged by the standards of a Typical Hollywood Crime Thriller? Certainly not. It's not even all that good when judged by the standards of your Offbeat/Auteur-Driven/Independent Crime Thriller.
It's a strange film, and I've been mulling over various comparisons ever since I walked out of the theatre, but none of them seem to stick. The most obvious comparison would be to No Country for Old Men, another unusual, philosophically-inclined Southwest-set thriller taken from the mind of Cormac McCarthy. But my reaction to The Counselor differed so much from my reaction to No Country that I can drawn one of two possibilities: either The Counselor is merely a failed version of the kind of film that No Country for Old Men successfully embodied, or The Counselor was aiming for something different, related but not the same, like the slightly maladjusted fraternal twin to No Country's model child.
While No Country for Old Men took the recognizable structure of a cat and mouse thriller and continually subverted it, depriving the audience of the "payoff" it was expecting, The Counselor completely saps the crime movie tropes of their typical meaning from the very start, demolishing the structures of the thriller until it leaves the viewer able to see the rubble, and recognize what it should look like when all the pieces are put together, but depriving the audience of any of the expected thrills or compelling moments that we have gone in to the theatre expecting. Unless what it is we were expecting was a treatise on the ultimate unknowability and isolation of all human beings in relation to each other, that is. But I doubt you were expecting that anyways. I certainly wasn't.
The plot, as it were, is almost totally indecipherable beyond the broadest outlines, and it was clear to me from watching that this is entirely by design. Michael Fassbender plays the unnamed central character -- The Counselor himself -- who invests in a border-crossing drug deal managed by Brad Pitt's hotshot Texan kingpin and Javier Bardem's gaudy businessman. The particulars of where the drugs where coming from, who they were going to, who was working for whom, and even exactly which drug it was that was being smuggled remain hazy and inchoate for the film's entire runtime, so I will not expend too much energy is describing the twists and turns of the deal and what goes wrong with it. Fassbender is engaged to a beautiful innocent played by Penelope Cruz, who does not play a virgin -- the first scene is an actually rather sensual lovemaking session between Fassbender and Cruz -- but who, for all intents and purposes, is positioned in the role of "The Virgin." Cameron Diaz is Javier Bardem's volatile girlfriend. There is some business involving Rosie Perez and a kid on a green motorcycle. Cartels are, of course, involved. John Leguizamo appears as well. Oh, and Edgar Ramirez is a priest, too.
If this summary makes the elements of the plot seem unconnected, well, that's because they are. In a linear, this-leads-to-that sense, that is. It has been said by some that in storytelling, all events must be told with "since..." or "but then..." instead of "and then..." but The Counselor ignores that. Every scene seems to introduce a new major character or subplot, and then the following scene seems to be entirely unrelated to the previous. This might be tenable for about 15-20 minutes of your typical movie, but The Counselor attempts to continue it for its entire run. What links these scenes, characters, and plotlines together is not the narrative, but rather Cormac McCarthy's pervading worldview. All the characters -- with perhaps one exception -- speak with one voice, and it is McCarthy's. The dialogue is not dialogue in the way we usually think of it, where characters meet on a agreed common ground and attempt to get across their wants and desires while being in some level of conflict or chemistry with the other character. The characters in The Counselor tend to speak past each other, and when they are in dialogue, the audience generally has no idea what they're talking about. There is almost no audience identification with any character. Most characters are entirely unpleasant and their desires extend no further than basic animal greed. We don't really want to see The Counselor himself get hurt, but we don't really root for him either. It is only his love for his Laura that keeps him from being entirely a cold cipher, and their romance (Fassbender and Cruz do have some real chemistry) is the only ray of light in a film that is otherwise entirely dark and bleak, tonally and emotionally. Long sequences go by where characters perform tasks we don't recognize, for purpose that we do not know; we are locked out of understanding the meaning of the scene that plays out before us.
What does one do with the writing? Since the plot should be thrown out, as it's clear neither Scott nor McCarthy are all that interested in it, the dialogue and speeches are basically all we have to judge. . Most screenwriters, even the best, are more like the people who design the rides at Disneyland than capital-A Authors -- they conceive and realize the moments that the audience is made to experience. They have to understand their characters' psychology, and chart out the plots, often utilizing fun and witty dialogue to make the medicine go down easy. Well, McCarthy is a different kind of writer, a man of letters, someone whose prose has been studied in universities and awards committees the world over. But does that mean his writing adapts well to the screen in this, his first original screenplay? Yes and no. McCarthy's highly arch and often florid dialogue would no doubt read very well, but it is not served by Scott's decision to fill his cast with actors who either are not speaking their native language (Bardem, Cruz, Bruno Ganz) or are made to speak in an accent that is not their own (Fassbender, Perez). And the dialogue may have gone by too fast to really connect in some scenes. But that might even be by design. The film ceaselessly pushes the viewer away in almost every other aspect, so why not in this one as well? Most of the speeches -- which function only as speeches, as authorial soapboxes -- are eloquently ominous, and most scenes do not end without a memorable line or snippet of dialogue, yet this isn't a film like, say, Lincoln or The Social Network, where the words are so listenable, so rhythmic that they are a thrill ride unto themselves. There is one big monologue (near monologue, actually) towards the end that is as close to the film's thesis statement as one will get, and it is beautiful, genuinely poetic and clearly coming from a place of real thought and pain. Out of context I would guess it has just as much power as within the film itself. But is that a problem? Shouldn't it have more meaning when it has the whole of the film behind it than when it is just taken in a vacuum? The character delivering it has no real reason to say it other than the fact that it is something that Cormac McCarthy would like to be said. Is that enough?
I don't know if I could say.
There are parts of the film that are real misfires, regardless of intent. Diaz is, frankly, outmatched by her role, which is a shame because so much of the film's thematic points hinge around her character. Scott, perhaps slightly afraid, backs off from the uncompromising tone in a few scenes towards the end, asking the audience to feel for The Counselor when previously the film had been content to regard him with only pity, like a deer hit by a truck on the highway; in another film this might be fine, but it doesn't mesh with the overall perspective here. The score, by Daniel Pemberton, is the biggest misstep of them all, as it attempts to push the film towards a typical thriller even while all the rest of the film subverts or avoids the beats of a normal thriller.
But I do think, that when one gets right down to it, The Counselor is trying to do something that few other movies I have ever seen, if any, have attempted to do. Perhaps this is why the critical reaction has often been so negative. I worry sometimes that I write too much about how critics react to things, and not about the films themselves, but with The Counselor, to discuss the effect it has on people is to discuss the movie itself. It wants to create a cold, often unpleasant experience -- where there is no beauty or grotesque humor shaped out of the ugliness -- with the hope that out of the experience you will come to understand or be made to understand some of McCarthy's deeply held truths.
Can I recommend The Counselor? I think most people will leave the film feeling deeply unsatisfied. But I doubt McCarthy cares if we are satisfied. Even with a film like No Country for Old Men, where critics raved of its avoidance of "closure" and "satisfaction," the Coen Brothers were clearly having a great deal of fun directing it, and that sense of excitement was palpable and contagious for the audience. Here, the craft is decidedly more understated. We leave The Counselor not basking in the pure expertise of the filmmakers, alive with the elation of the possibilities of film; instead we feel as if we have inhabited another man's headspace for two hours, and fear that that headspace is closer to the world we live in than the way we felt walking in.