Monday, October 28, 2013

Movie Review: The Counselor

The Counselor
Directed by: Ridley Scott.
Written by: Cormac McCarthy.
Starring: Michael Fassbender (The Counselor), Penélope Cruz (Laura), Cameron Diaz (Malkina), Javier Bardem (Reiner), Brad Pitt (Westray), Rosie Pérez (Ruth), Richard Cabral (The Young Man/The Green Hornet), Natalie Dormer (The Blonde), Édgar Ramírez (The Priest), Bruno Ganz (The Diamond Dealer), Rubén Blades (Jefe), Goran Višnjić (Michael), Toby Kebbell (Tony), Emma Rigby (Tony's Girlfriend), John Leguizamo (Randy), Dean Norris (The Buyer), Fernando Cayo (Abogado Hernandez).

I saw the Coen’s Brothers No Country for Old Men twice in fairly packed theaters – once at TIFF in 2007 and then again a few months later with my wife. Both times, after Tommy Lee Jones brilliant final monologue, when the screen turns black and silent, and the credits start rolling, I heard more than one audience exclaim “That’s it!” I know my experience is not singular to me – many have reported the same thing at screenings of the film back in 2007. And you really cannot blame the audience members who exclaimed it either – after all, movies condition us to expect a certain resolution, that No Country for Old Men does not give us. The main character is murdered – off-screen – his killer, the heartless killing machine of a villain, has walked away free, and the lawman who was chasing him has admitted he’s giving up. It’s a dark ending, a troubling ending, but a fitting and brilliant one.

Ridley Scott’s The Counselor is clearly a film by the same author of No Country for Old Men. The two taglines the Coen brother’s masterpiece used in their posters “There Are No Clean Getaways” and “You Can’t Stop What’s Coming” could easily be used for The Counselor as well. Whether Josh Brolin’s Llewyn Moss knows it or not, his fate is sealed the moment he takes the money from the dead drug dealers he stumbles upon. The Counselor (Michael Fassbender) has his fate sealed even before the movie begins. He’s warned – repeatedly – that once he goes down this path, he’s screwed, but he dives headlong in anyway.

Because the film is directed by Ridley Scott, who is known for mainstream fare, and has an all-star cast, and yes, because it’s been marketed like a mainstream thriller, it’s no wonder that most audiences – and critics – expected just that. But that is really not what Scott, and McCarthy writing his first original screenplay, have made in The Counselor. It’s almost an anti-thriller. Complaining that you can see the plot twists coming from early in the film is beside the point – there’s not even a real plot twist in the movie at all. It’s clear that McCarthy isn’t interested in writing a typical thriller – or even a screenplay that follows the normal rules we are conditioned to expect. The plot details in The Counselor are hazy because they don’t really matter all that much (although by the end, you can piece together everything that happens as long as you pay attention). This is a cold, heartless, violent film about inevitability – and indicates as much almost from the start. If at any times during The Counselor you expect a happy ending, you aren’t paying attention.

The film stars Fassbender as the unnamed lead character – a lawyer, who we first see under the covers with his soon-to-be fiancée Laura (Penelope Cruz). Soon we’ll see him meet two men – Reiner (Javier Bardem) and Westray (Brad Pitt), and we’ll understand the basics of what is happening. The Counselor has set up a drug deal with a Mexican cartel, using Reiner and Westray as middle men. They are importing $20 million worth of cocaine using massive, rundown trucks from Mexico to Chicago. We meet other characters – like the heartless Malkina (Cameron Diaz), the current girlfriend of Reiner, who has a cheetah fetish. Then there’s Ruth (Rosie Perez), a client of The Counselor who asks for his help getting her son out of jail on a speeding charge – this seemingly innocent request, that The Counselor does without thinking, is what will eventually screw everything up.

Many, if not most, reviews of The Counselor have complained about the pretentious dialogue – that goes on for minutes on end, and happen in scene after scene. But the dialogue in The Counselor is one of its greatest strengths. When did we start expecting movie dialogue to sound the way real people talk? The dialogue in The Counselor is highly stylized to be sure, but it’s also brilliant. This is one of the most quotable films of the year. The dialogue has a rhythm all its own, and the cast digs into it with gusto. My favorite may well be Brad Pitt, particularly in his first scene in a bar, where he lays for The Counselor precisely what he can expect – but his warning falls on deaf ears. But there are pleasures to be had watching any of the characters dig into the monologues McCarthy gives them – Bardem, saying more in his first scene here than in all of No Country for Old Men and Diaz making the most of getting playing the most amoral character in a film filled with nothing but amoral characters. And then there are the characters who only get one scene but make the most of them – Perez, reminding you why she is a better actress than she ever got credit for, Bruno Ganz going on about diamonds and their imperfections, Edgar Ramirez as a Priest who has no interest in Diaz’s confession, Ruben Blades as a man who waxes philosophical while threatening certain death, Toby Kebbell showing that The Counselor may have made more mistakes than just this one and John Leguizamo explaining to Dean Norris a particularly sick joke by Columbians. Fassbender is very good in the movie as well – but he’s also the film’s most passive character – sitting there and listening to everyone else, but never letting anything really sink in until it’s too late.

The Counselor may not be a perfect film – there are certainly flaws here. No matter how much I love the dialogue, it is true that the characters never really rise above the level of archetypes (although, again, I think it’s intentional). I cannot really complain about those who say the film is misogynistic – there are really only two female characters with any screen time, and Cruz’s Laura is presented as pretty much the embodiment of female perfection – or at least a man’s idea of female perfection – and Diaz is presented as her polar opposite – a heartless, she-devil. And the now infamous scene of Diaz literally having sex with Bardem’s car is unnecessary (as this scene is told by Bardem to Fassbender, it would have worked much better without the visual staging of the scene). But I still have to say, Diaz goes for broke – not just humping the car, but in her every scene in the movie. And to be fair, I don't quite think the film is misogynistic as much as it's mianthropic - it's not like any of the male characters are portrayed any better than the female ones.
The Counselor is a movie that most people are going to hate. It’s cold, it’s violent, it’s cynical and it doesn’t deliver the traditional payoffs we expect when we go see a star studded thriller or a Ridley Scott movie. But for me, it’s one of the best films of Scott’s career. Good for him diving headlong into McCarthy’s dialogue, and making a polished film out of the product – not the kind he would normally make (or the kind his brother, the late Tony Scott would make, although some critics have compared this to those film for reasons that escape me - yes, there is a superficial similarlity to some of the dark themes that run through Tony Scott's work, but stylistically it's far removed from his work, although perhaps there is something to be said about Ridley making a movie this dark after his brother's suicide) – but instead the movie that demands to be made out of McCarthy’s screenplay. And good for the actors who dive headlong into the movie, and make the most of the opportunity to deliver the type of dialogue that we almost never see in the movies. Yes, most people will hate The Counselor. Good for them. For a few people however, The Counselor is a special movie. I’m one of those people.

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