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The Counselor: The Jury’s Out

by Ethan Alter October 25, 2013 6:00 am
<i>The Counselor</i>: The Jury’s Out

As discerning fans of underrated crime films will immediately recognize, The Counselor is the Killing Them Softly of 2013: a stylish, mean-spirited picture about amoral people doing amoral things in an amoral criminal underworld that’s being quietly dumped into theaters by its studio because they don’t know what the hell else to do with such a flagrantly anti-commercial picture. (The fact that Brad Pitt appears in both as a very un-Pitt-like crook further unites the two movies.) Unfortunately, in terms of overall quality, The Counselor isn’t quite the dark-hearted delight that Killing Me Softly proved to be. That movie was a subversive home run whose reputation will hopefully grow over the years; this one is more of a ground rule double -- it puts its talented team in scoring position, but doesn’t ultimately bring them all home.

The Counselor represents the first -- and most likely only -- collaboration between director Ridley Scott and celebrated novelist Cormac McCarthy (writing his first original screenplay here), an odd pairing that doesn’t necessarily bring out the best in either artist. McCarthy’s stories thrive on an intimacy and ragged emotion that aren’t really part of this particular filmmaker’s skill set. As a rule, Scott doesn’t make intimate character pieces; he specializes in large-scale spectacles where he can lose himself in the world he’s creating, to the point where the setting generally becomes more interesting than the personalities inhabiting it. (His most effective character-driven film, 2003’s Matchstick Men, owes much of its success to its twist-driven con man movie hook.) Watching The Counselor, one gets the sense that Scott had no real idea how to shoot McCarthy’s dense, wordy screenplay, which doesn’t call for the kind of lavish backdrops seen in Blade Runner, Gladiator or even his ill-fated French Wine Country romantic drama A Good Year. With no larger-than-life world to vanish into, Scott is stuck filming the actors… well, acting, and he only seems to be half-listening to what they’re saying.

Granted, absorbing McCarthy’s blank verse poetry-as-dialogue does demand a certain degree of patience. Like David Mamet or Harold Pinter, his characters speak in metaphor-rich, subtext-heavy sentences that read well on the page, but can approach the edge of portentous self-parody when uttered aloud. (Also like Mamet’s characters, they rarely express their needs, wants and goals directly, talking around such basic feelings instead.) Furthermore, McCarthy has never been especially interested in cleanly-diagrammed storytelling; he deliberately omits or obscures key plot details and treats seemingly momentous events (such as the fate of No Country For Old Men’s ostensible hero, Llewelyn Moss, whose departure from the story occurs between pages) like afterthoughts.

He’s certainly uninterested in providing a full account of the crime that goes down in The Counselor, other than to suggest that it’s a by the book drug deal that goes wrong in spectacular ways. The main player in this sordid tale is the titular lawyer (Michael Fassbender), who, against his better judgment, is talked into participating in a “one-time only” job by his flamboyant client Reiner (Javier Bardem, sporting a hairstyle almost as ridiculous as the one he had in No Country), so that he’ll have the cash to get his pure-hearted lady love, Laura (Penélope Cruz) the pricey engagement ring she deserves. Also on the movie’s chessboard are Reiner’s minxish mistress Malkina (Cameron Diaz) and drug connection Westray (Pitt), both of whom have their own agendas that don’t necessarily dovetail with their cohorts. As the fallout from the botched operation widens, it claims the lives of more than a few innocents while the guilty fall all over themselves to get away scot-free. And that’s really the crux of McCarthy’s specific thematic interests, both here and in much of his other work: how the weak become wicked and how the wicked consume the weak to stay alive. His vision of the world is one that’s divided into hunters and prey -- and the hunters always win.

If Scott never exactly seems on the screenwriter’s wavelength (certainly not to the extent that those rascally Coen boys were in their pitch-perfect version of No Country), he does compensate somewhat by crafting a beautiful-looking film. That goes for both the lush visuals (which recall a tarted-up version of ‘80s Cannon-backed crime movies like 52 Pick-Up) and the absurdly attractive cast, whose exterior glamour is deliberately at odds with their rotting moral interiors. Left mostly to their own devices, the actors demonstrate a firmer understanding of the script than Scott and speak McCarthy’s verse with conviction, if not as much caustic wit as certain exchanges demand. (That’s the fundamental difference between Killing Them Softly and The Counselor; Andrew Dominik was aware of his film’s darkly satirical bent, whereas Scott doesn’t always see the wicked humor that’s part of McCarthy’s grand design.) Deploying a previously unseen feral ferocity, Diaz is particularly impressive in what’s easily the film’s trickiest role and she’s rewarded with a scene that may supplant the “sperm in the hair” gag from There’s Something About Mary as her wildest onscreen moment. All but certain to irritate general audiences and crater at the box office, The Counselor is nevertheless perversely fascinating -- half misfire and half inspired.

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