' ' Cinema Romantico: The Counselor

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Counselor

If venturing to the theater for maverick Ridley Scott's "The Counselor", it's best to check your expectations at the door. I'm not talking about your expectations as to whether the film might be great, good, bad, or awful - no, I'm not talking about your expectations regarding the kind of film you are about to see. It's a crime thriller in so much as it involves cocaine and gunfire and it's a drama in so much as it features famous actors in showy parts, except it's not really either of those things, not in the traditional sense. And it's not style before substance, though there is an entire Texas-sized buffet of style (people are dressed so well in this film I started to feel insecure), because there is substance aplenty in the form of numerous dense meditations that purposely appear intent on biting their thumb at the ancient axiom "Show, Don't Tell." It's simply less a movie than cinematic metaphysics.

The setting is interesting. Most of the action takes place in El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, the two cities straddling the border, a hot spot in recent pop culture visual arts, but while the location is crucial in spurring along critical portions of the script it is not truly an integral part of the story that Scott and his writer, famed novelist Cormac McCarthy, seek to tell. "Do you know how many people were killed in Juarez last year?" a character asks The Counselor himself (Michael Fassbender.) The Counselor shrugs. "A lot?" he offers. He has no idea. He probably doesn't care. Cold, but the truth has no temperature. Sociology and politics are not the point.

It is also interesting how little of the crime at the quasi-center of the picture is discussed in detail. As stated, it involves the cocaine trade, yet explicit details of the requisite deal gone wrong are not really addressed. We see glimpses of it, snippets intercut with other goings-on, but it never conveniently lays out precisely what is happening and why. It is some event taking place in some other world, far, far away from the people putting it in motion. Crime is not the point.

Scott and McCarthy are more interested in what occurs around the crime. What motivates these people? What is the benefit of such risk-taking? What is the danger? What is the thrill? For the first quarter of the film, in fact, people try talking The Counselor out of agreeing to this criminal act, whatever it may be, and he continually smugly defers. You know what they say, that could never happen to me.

It happens to him, and to his two associates who also enter the deal - Reiner (Javier Bardem) and Westray (Brad Pitt). As characters all three are short on past and personal details, and instead McCarthy establishes them by the lackadaisical way in which they take on the crime and then defines them by the way they react when that crime inevitably goes wrong. Reiner is resigned, yet unrepentant for what his ways have wrought. His end seems as off the cuff as his lifestyle (and hair). Westray is almost humored, as if this is the punchline he's waited for all his life. In fact, he cuts off the typical reaction at the pass, dismissing regret as "sophomoric."

The Counselor, however, being a first-timer, is the one in terrified denial, the one convinced he can wash the sins from his hands with one phone call or one piece of advice. He doesn't realize he made an addendum to his lease on life, nor that this addendum directly influenced his bride-to-be, the ravishing Laura (Penelope Cruz). Ah yes. Laura. Underwritten and rarely present, until her presence is required by the plot and she is shuffled back on stage and then right back off stage.

But don't presume McCarthy has no interest in the female mind for there is another character we have yet to discuss......the arrestingly named Malkina, played by a devil-may-care Cameron Diaz with fingernails to die for and a leopard tattoo that forcefully (heavy-handedly) connects her to a couple precious pet leopards (this is what drug money buys) who are seen hunting in the makeshift Texas wilds as Malkina and Reiner watch from afar over Cosmos. Her presence is consistently felt, even if she often lingers out of sight of the scheming men, though the film returns to her again and again in brief increments suggesting she transcends her appearance as a traditional gold digger. Her final lines, Gold help me, made me think of "Jurassic Park's" Dr. Ellie Satler: "Dinosaurs eat man. Woman inherits the earth." No, McCarthy may think most highly of women (though he doesn't think "highly" of anyone at all).

Of course, that just mentioned sequence is verbose and sensationally on the nose, and that does not make it rare. After all, McCarthy is a novelist, and so "The Counselor" is chock full of opulent tangents that speaking strictly in a Robert McKee sense are out of place on the silver screen. It's all talk. But then the majority of these characters are all talk. They talk, until they have nowhere to turn, and then they plead. Or just shut up and take their medicine.

Late in the film Rubén Blades suddenly appears on the opposite end of the phone. Frankly, I had no idea who his character was and I still don't. He may as well be Cormac McCarthy himself, laying out in monologue form his theme, how humans are too reluctant (frightened) to admit their actual predicament, their true place in life. Whether you are a goody two shoes, a cocaine cowboy or a Counselor, you cannot know peace without acceptance.

And you cannot see "The Counselor" for its raw, writhing, murky beauty without first accepting what it is.


Candice Frederick said...

hmmmm it's one of THOSE films, i see.

Nick Prigge said...

Ha! Yes. Yes, it is. That might be the most succinct way to describe it. It would also be perfect for the DVD cover. "One of THOSE films."

Alex Withrow said...

Great review. And I love what you said about Rubén Blades' character. I never thought about him as a McCarthy incarnate, but that works for me.

Glad we're on the same side about this flick.

Nick Prigge said...

Yeah, I'm just so glad there are other people out there willing to support this one.

Unknown said...

Women can be deadly! Loved Careron Diaz's hair style and her killer nails were hot!

Unknown said...

How did Javier Bardem die?