Tuesday, 12 November 2013

The Counselor (2013/US)

Julien Faddoul

** (2 stars)

d – Ridley Scott
w – Cormac McCarthy
ph – Dariusz Wolski
pd – Arthur Max
m – Daniel Pemberton
ed – Pietro Scalia
cos – Janty Yates

p – Paula Mae Schwartz, Steve Schwartz, Ridley Scott, Nick Wechsler

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Rosie Perez, Natalie Dormer, Edgar Ramirez, Bruno Ganz, Ruben Blades

Critics like to compare movie experiences to help them with their reactive decisions. This, lets face it, has become rather ostentatious. And unfortunately for you, dearest of readers, ostentation is the only approach I can take with The Counselor, for I must admit that Touch of Evil (1958) and The Big Sleep (1946) – both masterpieces – took me multable viewings before I could make sense of their plots. At the time of release, both films were critical flops and were not regarded as the artistic jewels they were until many years later. Funny thing, time.

You are probably now wondering whether I consider The Counselor to be among the level of those films. Well, I don’t. Who knows, maybe, with time, a movie like The Internship will be considered a classic piece of American comedy from our era. The problems with this kind of thinking are many. Firstly, no one can tell the future, that’s obvious. Secondly, the further into the future we reside, the more movies there will be, and the elitist mentality many take with classicism will always be an issue – before 2012, Citizen Kane was in The Sight and Sound Poll’s number one position since 1962. And lastly (and most importantly) the most beautiful thing about the cinema is in never knowing the conclusion; never knowing the full culmination. The greatest movies ever made have yet to be.

This might sound crazy, but I am often reminded of a line of dialogue from K, the Tommy Lee Jones character, in Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men in Black: “Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the centre of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you'll know tomorrow.” I’ll bet a week hasn’t gone by that I don’t recall this line.

Much like the Welles film and the Hawks film, The Counselor is an unfathomable movie. Sure, they’re all crime films (to an extent), but what Ridley Scott’s new film really shares with the prior two is its inscrutability. Not inscrutableness, but inscrutability. To explain, whenever The Counselor should go right, it goes left, and vice versa. Whenever one has cordially settled into what the film is about, one is betrayed. But betrayed to the point of vivification. The Counselor is so slippery that I recommend watching it with rear-view mirrors.

The Counselor is written by novelist Cormac McCarthy and his first screenplay it is. Michael Fassbender plays a lawyer referred to in the film only ever as The Counselor. He and Laura (Penelope Cruz) are a happy couple. We know this because when we first meet them they are having great sex while they talk about its greatness. Already, we can respire the hazards to come. In a typical screenplay, these early scenes would contain the establishing of characterization. Mr McCarthy instead lathers us in an ooze of poeticism. Reiner (Javier Bardem) is a rich playboy with a psychotic but intelligent bombshell of a girlfriend, Malkina (Cameron Diaz). Reiner has built his fortune on Juarez drug dealings and lets The Counselor in on his latest. The Counselor acquiesces, as he is hoping to start a new and comfortable life with Laura. He does this despite the warning of Westray (Brad Pitt), an impish but astute cowboy who knows of the dangers of the cartel business.

It is difficult to image these scenes upon description because they are all long, drawn-out duologues that Mr Scott composes with complete sincerity. Mr McCarthy’s words exhale out of the actors’ mouths like smoke from a cigarette. The plot (and the performances) become increasingly ludicrous. Later in the picture, The Counselor endures some rather nasty and tragic circumstances, but it is always unclear whether Mr Scott requires us to feel sympathy for him or not. And if we are, why? The most hysterical sequence involves a sexual act performed by Ms Diaz that beckons us to Mr McCarthy’s leitmotif on how the world is filled with both crazy and evil things and one can’t stop what’s coming.

The Counselor has been quite polarizing critically and has inspired some glorious writing. Two infamous examples are Andrew O’Hehir’s review for Salon.com, which was overly negative and Manohla Dargis’ review for The New York Times, which was overly positive. Both of their reactions are quite complex, as is mine. I fall somewhat in between. But I do believe that disregarding the picture as a pretentious mess is an extremely risky gambit. The Counselor is like no other movie from the last few years, and only the ultimate film critic, time, will tell whether it’s a protuberance of  dexterity or clumsiness.

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