Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Counselor (2013)

Ridley Scott's the Counselor is a tricky thing. Critically panned and a source of much derision amongst viewers, it's polarized audiences with most reports trending on the negative. It's easy to see why: The film is short on character development, or emotional ties to the characters it attempts to develop, and the plot itself is just a loose mechanic devised to perpetuate dialog. In actuality, the direction of the Counselor is mostly top notch. Scott's niche is filled here, and I can't imagine another director tackling this film. Tony Scott, maybe, were he among the living, as his Revenge is sort of thematically similar to the Counselor, which I might speculate is what attracted Ridley to it in the first place.

Michael Fassbender here plays the titular counselor. A lawyer of dubious morals whose first name is never divulged. He's in love with Laura (Penelope Cruz) and has committed to sinking some money into a fairly large drug deal, being overseen by an unnamed cartel at the border of Juarez. Helping him wet his feet are Westray, played by Brad Pitt in full on intellectual cowboy mode, and Javier Bardem's Reiner, the larger than life trafficker that facilities the transaction. And finally, there's Malkina, played sultry and sumptuous by Cameron Diaz, a femme fatale in every sense of the word, and portent for shit to hit the fan when she wrestles control of the operation from Reiner.

The cast is generally perfect for their respective roles, aside from Cruz who is underused as an unfortunately simple MacGuffin. Fassbender is appropriately passive, especially when in the room with Westray's apocalyptic and down-beat diatribes in which he second guesses every decision laid down by the counselor. Reiner, as well, while completely over the top ridiculous, is a passive MacGuffin in his own relationship with Diaz's languidly devious Malkina. Each comes to the fore with their talents fully in tow, however, milking the script for every ounce of quotability.

In actuality, the Counselor belongs to Cormac McCarthy. Sort of a spiritual heir to the ideas floating intangibly above his No Country For Old Men. The Counselor is just as nihilistic and mean spirited, if not more. His dialog is amazingly erudite, almost Shakespearian, and a constant death knell to optimism or morality. He sets out to paint the Counselor as a man of little substance, defined by his actions and directed by others. An essentially empty man whose sole impetus is his fixation with a woman. In fact all of the male characters here are shown as driven by women, Reiner by Malkina, and Westray by the gender as a whole. Their intertwining relationships mostly clash rather than coalesce, in all regard save for the fairer sex where they are inextricably linked.

What McCarthy has done is used the broad strokes of a film in the guise of a modern thriller, dousing it with the overtones of a western film noir. It has all of the classic elements necessary, illustrating corrupt men that are victim of more corrupt women caught in tawdry locales. In fact, one could go a long way drawing comparisons to classics like Welles' Touch of Evil, Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly, even Walter Hills' Extreme Prejudice. Every character here is utterly broken, and in most cases beyond any redemption. Their solace can only be attained by embracing the inevitability of their chosen paths.

The moral conundrum that is the movie as a whole is painted out beautifully during a conversation with "Jefe", an awesomely chosen Ruben Blades who literally steals his scene from a blubbering Fassbender. His role as an ideological machination is perfectly displayed here, bested only by the line: "I'm pretty skeptical about the goodness of the good. I think that if you ransacked the archives of the redeemed you would uncover tales of moral squalor quite beyond the merely appalling." Mused by Brad Pitt's Westray, which also goes a long way to illustrate the purpose of the film itself. Not to paint a specific plot with well established characters at all. In fact, the only parts of the characters that are well established are their flaws, and in the case of Malkina, her flaws are her strong suit of which she's well aware.

This is a film of desperate couples, distorting their redemptions in a desolate locale. Juarez is after all, Murder City, with 3,115 people killed in 2010 alone, it's no coincidence that McCarthy chose it for his location: nowhere else is better suited for men and women whose ideals have been so compromised as they have here. I can't wait for McCarthy's next film, whatever that may be. His writing is stellar even as a screenplay, and this is reminiscent enough of his best work (Blood Meridian in my humble opinion) that it holds up under scrutiny. Pairing him with Ridley Scott as director was a perfect choice, as this is Scott's best work since Body of Lies, possibly Kingdom of Heaven. 

Clearly I fall into the camp of people rather taken by this film, but my recommendation rests upon the shoulders of the viewer. If you're willing to leap into something with vague characterization, but heavy on ideas and dialog meant to convey a more metaphoric purpose than what's visible on paper, the Counselor is likely right up your alley. If, on the other hand, you thrive on having your cinema spelled out for you every step of the way, I can only assume you'll take nothing away from this experiment.

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