The Counselor

Stop and think it over
Ridley Scott
Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Brad Pitt
The Setup: 
Guy gets involved in drug deal that goes badly.

So this is the first screenplay written by novelist Cormac McCarthy, of No Country for Old Men and The Road fame, and is directed by Ridley Scott, with an all-star cast. And it got terrible reviews, many of whom noted, for better and worse, that McCarthy has obviously never written a screenplay before, and doesn't know, or follow, any of the common screenwriting rules. But I thought "How bad could it be?" and "I like crime gone wrong movies, no matter how lame they are." Well... I didn't know how bad it could be.

We open with Michael Fassbender as The Counselor [that is the only name given to him in the film, and all anyone ever calls him], and Penelope Cruz as Laura, in bed, canoodling. They are obviously very much in love. He soon buys her an engagement ring, and she has a nice bit of acting as she is clearly moved when he gives it to her. He's also clearly wealthy, and has a great woman, and this is all here to show that he has it all, so why is he trying for more, a question that hangs over the film... and is never satisfactorily resolved. Throughout, we never quite understand like someone like himself would get involved in something like this.

Meanwhile, a truck in Mexico is loaded with a ton of drugs, and easily crosses the border. Fassbender is involved with Javier Bardem as Reiner, who has a sexy/scary girlfriend in Cameron Diaz as Malkina. Take note of the "Mal" part of her name. Fassbender is somehow involved in this drug shipment, and Reiner continually tells him that the kind of people he's dealing with now are dangerous, capable of anything, will stop at nothing, and are far more brutal than anything he's ever dealt with before. It's really kind of about all he ever says. Brad Pitt also shows up as an advisor to Fassbender, and warns him that the kind of people he's dealing with now are dangerous, capable of anything, will stop at nothing, etc. It's all HE talks about. And they're all saying it in inflated language with philosophical trills and references to Body Heat [which itself is just a gloss on Double Indemnity], Keats, stuff like that.

Thing is, we don't really understand the deal, or how anyone is involved, and who is doing what and why. There are other, peripheral characters, who are involved in the drug deal going wrong [as another critic asked: Do drug deals in movies ever go right?], only we don't understand how it went wrong or who the people are or what's happening or who played what role. Only, after a certain point, everything is screwed, and from that point on everyone starts telling Fassbender, in more inflated, philosophical language, that he's fucked and screwed and will never escape and everything he loved will be taken away and he's really screwed the pooch. This leads up to a concluding call from Ruben Blades, a character not introduced until the closing minutes and whose place we don't understand, who tells Fassbender, in philosophical language, that he's fucked, etc.

Then it ends. In here, yes, Cameron Diaz humps a car, but people are talking about that because there's really nothing else to talk about with this movie. She is good in the movie [I always thought she had more potential than she's usually asked to display], but she's essentially the same thing as Kristen Scott Thomas in Only God Forgives.

So there's two things to discuss about this movie. The first is that I really do not get what Ridley Scott is up to lately with what I would call these flat-affect movies, in which everything is at the same level, and the action scenes and the conversations are all shot in the same way, with no lulls or climaxes, no ups or downs, just a start, continuous procession to the end, then conclusion. However, I think he thinks he's being extremely contemporary, very modern. I'll also say that, I guess this makes me old fashioned, but they're not for me. I like big climaxes and setpieces with rising music and dynamic shots and editing all in the service of providing an emotional experience, which is precisely what you do not get here. Time will tell if these movies look incredibly prescient in twenty years, and I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but even so--that leaves you twenty years to catch this on video.

It also doesn't help that we're only slightly beginning to understand the basic mechanics of the plot by the time the movie is ending, after emotional or any other kind of engagement is long gone.

The second issue is not so much that McCarthy doesn't follow screenwriting rules, but that he seems not to get that films offer us no time to stop and soak in the larger thematic and philosophical issues he's dealing in. With a book, you can stop and think about what you've just read, or go back and read something again, and thus an author can build themes that continually accrue over the course of the novel. Here, there's a lot of stuff thrown at us--mostly about having a shred of moral decency blinding one to the possibility of those with absolutely no moral decency, and about how a situation continually changes as one experiences it--but we can barely get into the ideas, or allow them to accrue any power, when we don't even have enough time to process what the characters are saying. Ironically, it was a Ridley Scott film--Blade Runner--that taught me this: once the voice-over was taken away, we had TIME to reflect on what we were seeing, and it became an entirely different film. We could also see this with the dismal film of McCarthy's The Road, since the entire power of the novel rested on the reflections one had space to have while reading it. I can see how this would be a different experience while reading it, even the screenplay, because you would have the time to process the ideas. As it unfolds onscreen, however, one barely knows WHAT the characters are saying, let alone what it means.

This is why I suspect Scott might think films like this are quite modern, built for an age where films can be watched over and over again, and parsed down to the last detail. But perhaps he lost sight of the fact that in order to interest someone enough to watch it repeatedly enough to tease out the deeper meanings, they need a reason to watch it even once.

Should you watch it: 

Maybe twenty years from now? But not now.