Monday, November 4, 2013

The Counselor

"The Counselor" has not had a very warm reception amongst critics.  Its current Rotten Tomatoes score is about 38%, which means it actually has a slightly worse score than "Only God Forgives", Nicolas Winding Refn's disastrously awful follow-up to "Drive".  Considering that 2013 has been the setting of a mass grave for potential adult crime thrillers, seeing the bitter failures of "Gangster Squad", "Dead Man Down", "Stand-Up Guys", "The Place Beyond the Pines", and most atrociously, "Pain and Gain", it looked to me like "The Counselor" was about to join that unhappy host.  Yeah, it had a great trailer, but the trailers for "Dead Man Down" and "Only God Forgives" were works of art - absolutely meaningless when compared to their horrible full products.  So I went into the theater well-braced to add another film to my list of Worst Movies of 2013*.  Instead I came out with a movie to add to that other list I make at the end of the year.

Yes, "The Counselor" is good.  Really good.  Really really good.  Really really really really really really really good.  You will do yourself a great disservice if you decide not to go see it, by listening to the critics.  That being said, it isn't going to please everybody.  "The Counselor" comes from a screenplay by acclaimed novelist Cormac McCarthy, best known for writing "No Country for Old Men".  McCarthy is not a writer who makes pleasant worlds for the whole family to enjoy, and he usually doesn't leave you with a nice warm feeling at the pit of your tummy.  He's a brutalist, constructing novels full of humanity's very worst behavior, reveling in the stark pointlessness of our species.  "The Counselor" is straight out of that mold:  it doesn't end well, the characters do not come out of this adventure as better people, and most of them do not survive at all.  They're all trapped within a faceless, monstrous machinery of violence at the American-Mexican border that moves forward the illegal drug industry.

Last week I reviewed "Machete Kills", which took the very same location and transformed into pulp swashbuckling for its protagonist.  That was candycorn, absolute nonsense.  "The Counselor" may still be somewhat of a stylized picture of the drug industry, but it is definitely moving into a far more interesting and profound artistic statement.  The movie begins with a very deliberate slow movement (though not slow-paced) of scenes and pieces getting laid outward, its not really clear what the plot is until roughly halfway through.  But once those pieces are finally put together, you can see the noose hanging around every person's neck.  Specifically its a steel-wire mechanical noose, fed by a grinding electric motor that will never ever stop tightening.  There is nothing you can do.  Nobody can help you.  This machine will keep tightening until the noose is fully closed.  Until its sawed through your flesh and left your blood spraying on the ground for all to see.

"The Counselor"'s opening stretch is deliberately opaque, with each scene seemingly separated entirely from the greater whole.  You see Michael Fassbender's lead character, known only as "The Counselor", living in bliss with his innocent wife, played by Penelope Cruz.  He picks up a perfect diamond in Amsterdam for her, and apparently has to put together a large-scale drug deal in order to pay for his new life.  But between that we have a truck moving north, Brad Pitt is a very cynical drug middleman, some young man driving very fast in his motorcycle, and the Counselor's drug dealing business partner, played by a bloated and deeply tanned Javier Bardem.  Bardem is in a relationship with Cameron Diaz's character, a sinister predatory creature that vamps up menace in every scene but still seems too small to actually be a menace.  There are moments where the Counselor is mocking one of his clients in jail, the bike rider gets arrested, Penelope Cruz and Cameron Diaz have a terse cat-and-mouse conversation.  But it isn't until about forty-five minutes into the film that these characters actually manage to line up into a comprehensible conflict, and once its there, it rapidly moves forward.

Cormac McCarthy exudes his script with plenty of fine details, creating a universe of considerably more depth and reality than the typical movie.  The movie feels exactly like reading a novel, where the story's natural pace and character movements crystallize the story, unlike movies which typically dump the exposition right at the beginning.  All too often lately the entire plot is just described with voice over or text crawls, and characterization is far too basic.  I feel like movies rely too much on their actors to fill in the small character details, where a novelist has to, by necessity, create everything themselves.  So McCarthy really pulls together something very impressive, where every action and every word adds to the overall experience.  I love how Javier Bardem is constantly wearing the same pair of sunglasses, only with their color changing depending upon the mood of the scene, but also dresses like a fat and content tourist.  Cameron Diaz carries around two cheetahs as pets, mirroring her character's true nature.  Fassbender himself seems far too confident and powerful to ever have to face the destruction as he sees here, but his journey is never one where he has a single choice or a way out.

The dialog is also extravagant and philosophical.  This might turn off some of the movie's audience since these scenes sometimes feature very heavy discussions which are at times somewhat difficult to follow.  A Dutch jeweler discusses diamonds as symbols of human souls, and of course, the villain runs away with the money using diamonds as a fence.  Much of the last act of the film is like a discussion with a rabbi about the inevitability of loss and death, and  how these characters must ultimately face acceptance of their doom.  Brad Pitt's character is the one who immediately realizes his time is over, and goes to London to enjoy himself; Michael Fassbender has a much more difficult time of it.  Then there is a long scene where Javier Bardem describes how Cameron Diaz once fucked his Lamborghini while he watched.  Yes, she had sex with a car, and it is the funniest goddamn scene of any movie all year.

Meanwhile, in the background, the truck full of drugs continues north.  It changes hands a few times, about four people are murdered over it, but it continues on its journey none the less.  There is considerable time even to the professional and emotionless industry that floats around the drug trade.  Once the truck is recovered for the cartels after an extremely bloody gunfight, it is sent to a yard where a team of silent laborers clean up the blood, fix the bullet holes, and send it right up north to its final destination.  Where its opened by characters we've never met, who then have their own mini-scene laughing over the horror that is within.  The creatures that actually control this drug trade are never scene, because there is no single man behind it all.  Its an organism of its own kind, being fed by every character in the movie no matter where they stand.  And there is, of course, no way to stop it, no way to injure it.  It is just is a part of our humanity.

The Counselor buys into the system thinking he can stand away from it, and exist outside of the nightmare reality which he wants to profit from.  It isn't the worst sin in the world, he means no particular malice by it.  But he pays his price all the same.  Cormac McCarthy and Ridley Scott almost turn their film into a revenge fantasy:  finally damning all the White Collar American bastards who can sit at home and peacefully pump money into Latin America's drug war.

This will not be a movie for everybody.  Its weighty, its bleak, its even highly depressing.  But it has pitch-perfect performances from its entire cast, including the best work Brad Pitt has done... all century, I think.  The script is a model of perfection, accomplishing its goals and message with lovely flair, though perhaps too pretentious for some.  Ridley Scott makes real magic out of McCarthy's vision, they were an excellent collaboration and together created a simply excellent movie.  I can't promise you'll like what "The Counselor" is trying to say about the human condition, but its definitely a message you do not want to miss.

* I won't give away too many spoilers but know that at least two of the movies I've mentioned are going to end up on it.  I don't want to give away which ones they are, but just know one of them is "Pain and Gain".

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