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Sunday, October 27, 2013

Review: The Counselor

There's often a difficulty in the page to screen translation. For years, author Cormac McCarthy has flirted with film makers that have expressed interest in his novel and "generally accepted as a masterpiece" Blood Meridian. The subject matter and the generally difficult nature of McCarthy's narrative style have halted these attempts at various stages in the production cycle. His pulpier works have been tackled with great success, as No Country For Old Men and The Road were respectively taken on by filmmakers who understand the visual language of cinema but stay true to the novels' original intent. Success in this area is a matter of a filter between the Author and the Screenwriter/Director. With The Counselor, McCarthy is attempting to bring his storytelling style directly to the screen for the first time with Ridley Scott helming behind the camera. To say the results are less than satisfactory would be an understatement, in truth The Counselor is an outright disaster.

The rather thin narrative that McCarthy crafts revolves around a drug shipment gone awry and the set of characters that are drawn into chaos because of a lapse in good judgement. The lead character who is referred to only as "Counselor" (Michael Fassbender) is torn between the love of his fiance (Penelope Cruz) and the precipice of potential evil that he could fall into. In order to pay for the 3.8 karat engagement ring that he purchased for her, he becomes involved in a drug running scheme with his club owning friend (Javier Bardem) and a "middleman" they know (Brad Pitt). "Counselor" makes a rather innocuous decision and everything goes spiraling from there including a lot of shooting and blood, and a woman named Malinka (Cameron Diaz) who has a thing for cheetahs.

The above is my best attempt at summarizing the plot of what is frankly, an incoherent mess. Characters begin conversations related to the plot and then drone on and on about metaphors and other illusory material that rather than serve the story or fill in greater details about these fairly unlikeable players, simply prolong the agony that is the tale McCarthy has woven. An example of this would be if someone came to you and said, "Hey, I like baseball" and you responded "There was once a boy who loved baseball, and in this love he discovered just how truly evil he could be within his moral compass...etc etc" this type of dialogue goes on and on in almost every interaction that occurs between the main characters. In a novel, this sort of material could work, particularly given McCarthy's penchant for writing in the third person. On screen, it's simply torturous. Perhaps if any of these passages upon passages of dialogue were utilized for character development, the negatives of this approach wouldn't stand out so broadly; but as it stands, the audience is given no reason to care when their characters' lives are systematically torn apart.

It would be easy to say the fault lies completely with McCarthy's limp script, but there is plenty of blame to go around, with a fair portion of it being aimed at Ridley Scott's inept direction. This is as far from "Alien/Blade Runner/even Gladiator Ridley Scott" as you could possibly get. Scott, rather than displaying an editorial hand to McCarthy's work, simply shoots it as is and even heightens the melodrama with bizarre symbolism and awful soap opera style advancing close-ups. In Scott's vision of this world, every woman of power is a statuesque blonde, even the limo drivers, and every party and crowd scene looks as inauthentic as the film's central philosophizing. It's possible that an argument could made that the film's possible thesis, of which I'm only guessing, around capitalism and the American economy could be surmised in these choices but that sort of analysis would cost more mental energy than Scott himself clearly invested into this picture. Not since David Cronenberg completely face-planted with Don DeLilo's Cosmopolis has there been such a poor pairing of writer and director.

In terms of performances, Fassbender, up to this point, has been a standout in films in which he is either part of the ensemble or a star. Yet he and fellow master thespian Bardem are completely lost in this jumbled dialogue they're forced to deliver. Any scenes of emotion that end up coming from Fassbender feel out of step from the more reserved nature of the narrative, and almost come across as overacting but in a uniquely Michael Fassbender way. I was reminded of Nicolas Cage in the remake of The Wicker Man throughout. On the other hand, Bardem, dressed up like a Hispanic Mark McGrath that's been electrocuted, tries to have some fun and gets probably the biggest laugh of the whole affair in one of his many monologues. Pitt and Cruz make little to no impression, which underscores just how poorly fleshed out these characters are given how much screen-time they both receive. Diaz is just awful, but her painfully wooden performance is almost appropriate in a "b-movie schlock" way. Dean Norris and John Leguizamo show up in a delightful cameo scene, and one of the film's lone highlights, that feels like they walked in from a completely different movie altogether.

After a (surely unintentionally) hilarious scene in which Bardem's character tells "Counselor" about how Malinka rubbed her private parts on the windshield of his car and his subsequent befuddlement due to her actions, "Counselor" asks him if that had anything to do with their upcoming drug deal to which Bardem responds: "I don't know". I'm not sure any other statement could be more representative of everything that's wrong with The Counselor, a failure in every respect, surely the worst movie I've had to sit through in 2013 to this point and perhaps the worst misfire in Ridley Scott's career.

I give it an F.
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