The work of Ridley Scott has come across as divisive for most of his career. A filmmaker who started in advertising, Scott struck gold a few times in his career. However, people realised this after the fact. Nevertheless, no matter the project, it always seems clear that people hunger for Scott to provide a product that defines a generation, despite the time taken for his classics to be considered worthy. His recent ventures obtain the same treatment his masterworks got upon their first release.
The one man’s trash/treasure analogy gets used often enough to be considered a trite cliché. But it’s the best way to describe The Counselor. Doom-laden trash gussied up into gold. Or perhaps Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) for the new millennium cynic (although that tag may fall to the brutally curt Killing Them Softly). The Counselor is a grim melding of malevolence and nihilism. A noir perfectly fitted to the 00s.
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In The Counselor, the scent of death lingers like a sickly musk. Scott’s strongest films reek of this fatalism. Thelma and Louise (1991) at first laugh and joke about their holiday, but their joyful Polaroid shot early on becomes a tragic emblem. From the moment the shutter clicks, a feeling of foreboding takes hold. The dream sequences of Maximus Decimus Meridius’ family in Gladiator become less like flashbacks and more of a beckoned call of eternal peace, urging for Maximus to go forth to the afterlife. Alien sets itself up like a slasher film. It highlights that the blue-collar workers were disposable from the get-go. An early warning for late-stage capitalism? After 2020, Alien also makes it apparent that maybe a solid quarantine system in the real world is a good idea. Meanwhile, the humanoids who inhabit Blade Runner (1982) are set to perish, with furious knowledge of their short lifespans.
This similar sense of fatalism is found in The Coen‘s Oscar-winning feature No Country for Old Men (2007), an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel. No Country, a tale of ill-gotten cash gone astray is also a film which holds a deep sense of cyclical nihilism brought on by the greed of its doomed protagonist. The early actions of Llewelyn set forth a dangerous chain of events that leads inevitably to his demise. McCarthy, the writer of The Counselor screenplay, arranges his pieces similarly, with similar results for its characters.
The Counselor is no real leap for the two driving creative forces. It’s in their lifeblood. McCarthy is a pessimistic neo-western myth maker, while Scott is the architect of a beautiful, commercial product that often lends itself to a certain kind of tragedy. The Counselor is the perfect foil. Like the film Angel Heart (1987), once the cogs set themselves in motion, our protagonist is doing all he can to postpone the inevitable. Why? Because our dear counsellor needs to understand that he is soon to be the knight leading the dance of death. They are playing his song.
Amusingly, when the film boils down to its essence, it is little more than an off-beat, crude drug deal gone wrong. Michael Fassbender plays the titled, unnamed counsellor who falls too deep into a dubious drug deal with his outlandishly styled friend (Javier Bardem). Once the penny drops, the counselor desperately seeks safety for himself and his fiancé (Penelope Cruz). There’s not much more to it. However, the bombastic nature of McCarthy’s script and Scott’s visuals mutate the film into something else. It is pompous. The execution of the narrative is a tad clunky. And yet, the film is endlessly enthralling at each point of its bleak worldview.
The Counselor obtained a ton of negative press with a heavy focus on a screenplay that couldn’t give a toss about saving the cat. Someone allowed Cormac McCarthy to be Cormac McCarthy, and the writer not so much throws but hurls the rule book out the window. The narrative loads itself with wildly designed characters who elaborate and sermonise boldly in code or philosophical terms, while attitudes of decency towards sex and women are strewn carelessly in the gutter. The pontifications spouted here are not too dissimilar to the wordy verbatim found in the first series of True Detective or Westworld. It’s funny how TV can be as obtuse as it likes these days. With episode upon episode under the guise of being enigmatic.
Oh, how these people talk! They happily break free of typical, dull screenplay dialogue. Much like the Nick Cave authored film The Proposition (2005), characters roll decorative speech around their tongues. There appears to be a wish that a Ridley Scott film with such a star-studded cast should not be as chit-chatty and lurid. The Counselor holds its head up high as an ugly sneer of a film. A repulsiveness which makes sense because of the wicked world these people reside in. It simply could not sound like anything else.
People can say that no one talks as they do in The Counselor. No one would have such lengthy musings on outrageous sex or grim murder. However, in the same vein, no one in real life talks like they do in a David Mamet movie. And that’s the point. That McCarthy has never read a screenplay manual. But would he? It wasn’t that long ago that articles bemoaned Save The Cat! scripts. When a film breaks those rules, it should at least gain praise for showing some ambition. With McCarthy’s first screenplay, you get what you paid for. You get a Cormac McCarthy screenplay. The Counselor is like how the sun operates on the America/Mexico border in which the film is set. Bright and clear. Harsh and unforgiving. For all the ornate speech, the counsellor’s fate remains clear cut, like a length of steel wire cutting into a biker’s neck at high speed.
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Despite the dark material in The Counselor, Ridley Scott is at his most mischievous here. With production designer Arthur Max and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski in tow, Spanish exteriors and English interiors are blended into a vision of the American Southwest. One may only be able to tell if they know their geography. Ridley amusingly states on the film’s Blu-ray extras that the film is mostly talking. However, his ability to heighten visuals ensures that the dressing of the film has the desolate desert terrain, or the garish, materialistic houses uniformly fit the worldview of the film’s characters.
In addition to this, the film’s A-lister cast is well-pitched. Michael Fassbender’s unnamed counsellor first tries to show himself as an unshakeable force of confidence. A scene with the ever-dependable Rosie Perez enforces this effectively. At first, this corrupt representative deflects everything as if he has a veneer of Teflon. Once the character takes an unnecessary risk that effectively endangers his life and love, it is not long before he slowly dissolves into a mound of cognitive dissonance. Javier Bardem has tons of fun as Reiner, monologing as loudly as his fashion sense.
While 2013 may not have been Brad Pitt’s strongest performance-wise, he no less delivers the type of charm an A-lister like him would bring in his role of Westray. However, the most polarising display, from Cameron Diaz as Malkina, is perhaps the film’s most arresting one. To some, Diaz is miscast. The knowledge that her character was at first Argentinian seemed a prominent factor of some of the more negative attention at the time. However, the shift from Latin America to whatever Diaz’s final performance is on screen makes for a more enigmatic character. Diaz’s performance holds a ruthless aggression like her display in Any Given Sunday (1999). Yet here, Diaz reminds audiences of her sex appeal and acting range. When she is on screen, it becomes hard to look away.
Of course, to talk about Diaz’s performance means to also mention the infamous “car fucking” sequence. It is truly an unforgettable moment. But it has to be seen first to be believed. The moment becomes a perfect symbol of Malkina’s belief system. A woman so enthralled by her inner greed and materialism that she can happily make love to expensive cars rather than mourn men she once knew. Once the audience discovers who the antagonist is aiding the counsellor’s demise, the outrageous “car fucking” doesn’t feel as outlandish as when first witnessed. That said, this writer might have seen too many movies.
Of the maverick British Admen of the ’70s who became directors, Ridley Scott has lasted the longest in the limelight. Adrian Lyne, an effective maker of erotically charged dramas, is still more synonymous with his 80’s features despite potent works such as Jacob’s Ladder (1990) and Unfaithful (2002). The late Alan Parker had little made – if not for lack of trying – after the damp squib that was The Life of David Gale (2003). Tony Scott (Ridley’s brother), unfortunately, passed away despite a consistent run of potent poppy entertainment ending with the triumphant action piece Unstoppable (2010). Nothing seems to have halted Ridley. There’s a feeling that even in his 80s, his ability to keep working on these commercial features is something to behold.
The now ex-Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger always remarked that he would not know what would come next if he left the club. So consumed by the club’s inner workings and football itself, it suggested that if the football stopped, so would Arsene. The Counselor and its fatalist moralising feel like a projection of Wenger’s feelings. That is perhaps reaching. But it’s certainly a way to sum up Scott at times. He is a filmmaker who has an unwillingness to stop working. Every new project is yet another chance to show his hunger. At one point in The Counselor, a character muses that when a person ceases to exist, this world that they have created will also cease to exist. A fascination is sparked when observing an ageing filmmaker who will not relent in making new worlds. No matter how cynical.
The Counselor was released on 25th October 2013.