Review – ‘The Counselor’ (2013)

The Counselor (2013) is a rare pleasure in film viewing – one of those perfect storms in which every element of the production seems to have conspired to make the end product horribly, hysterically crap. Having managed a modest box-office success despite being critically panned, the film seems to have vanished completely from the collective popular consciousness. That’s a real shame, because for anyone who appreciates a good bad film, it’s essential viewing.

One thing that’s certain is that the problems definitely start with the writing. Due to the laurels piled on Cormac McCarthy after the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men (2007) – of which more later – some reviews did try to defend The Counselor as “a good script gone bad”. Now, I would never deny that McCarthy has written some great novels, but anyone who’s seen this film surely can’t deny that he’s written at least one king-Hell turd of a script too.

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Weird body language

Writing a novel and writing for the screen are obviously two very different things, requiring very different sets of skills – Joel and Ethan Coens’ script for their film is a great case study. People often talk about how close that film was to its source material, but what they really mean is that the same things happen in the book and the film. As pieces of writing, the differences are fundamental and profound.

The text of McCarthy’s novel, as always, is deliberately laced with eloquent, grandiose language. The book is broken up by passages in which Sherriff Tom Bell muses on the nature of evil in the modern world, and how it is reflected in his own experiences. McCarthy’s own narration describes the characters and their world with his usual nightmare vividness. The actual dialogue spoken by those characters is all sparse, necessary, and to the point – with the exception of Anton Chigurh, who rambles darkly like some kind of demonic prophet, and is marked out from every other character by that very trait.

In the film, those minimalist lines of spoken dialogue are almost all that remains of McCarthy’s actual words. All his description and thematic narration are jettisoned – or, rather, translated into the visual language of cinema. Sheriff Bell’s philosophical musings only make two appearances: as a voiceover at the start of the film, totally detached from its story; and in the short closing scene as he describes his dreams to a friend.

The Counselor is also a great case study, showing us how important that restraint was by showing us what happens without it. Rather than restricting his trademark linguistic style to a few flourishes, and trusting the film’s visuals to fill in the blanks, McCarthy’s script makes almost every character a mouthpiece for the same grandiose, omniscient narrative voice.

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A “cautionary diamond”. Except then he says they’re all “cautionary”. So maybe it’s only if…oh, bugger it.

In one scene, Fassbender’s titular counselor is buying a diamond from a jeweller. While Fassbender examines a particular stone, apropos of nothing, the jeweller says: “That’s not a small thing to wish for, however unattainable. To aspire to the stone’s endless destiny. Isn’t that the meaning of adornment? To enhance the beauty of the beloved is to acknowledge both her frailty, and the nobility of that frailty. We announce to the darkness that we will not be diminished by the brevity of out lives. That we will not thereby be made less”. Our counsellor takes this in his stride, but I wonder if the guy gets much repeat business.

In the middle of a friendly conversation about women, between what appear to be two close friends, Javier Bardem’s over-the-top drug dealer caricature breaks off to helpfully point out: “If you pursue this road that you’ve embarked upon, you will eventually come to moral decisions that will take you completely by surprise. You won’t see it coming at all”. Every scrap of description, thematic underpinning, and emotional development is squeezed into the lines spoken in that same detached, portentous “voice-of-God”.

Brad Pitt’s bizarre cowboy, a cartel boss confronted via phone – by the end of the film, even the owner of a dive bar our hero passes out in is mouthing off about how “death doesn’t care…death has no meaning,” like a philosophy student giving an impromptu viva for his thesis. Out of interest, I just counted 160 words of spoken dialogue in the first 14 minutes of No Country for Old Men. The Counselor reaches that total in just four – and considering the film opens with a four-minute sex scene, that’s a pretty good indication of how relentless the verbal barrage is.

McCarthy can’t be made to carry all of the blame, however. It’s certainly true that the effect is worsened by some significant performance issues. Basically everyone in the movie gives the impression that they first saw the script three minutes before Ridley said “Action,” and are just having to spout the stuff without the faintest idea what any of it is supposed to mean. The only exceptions are Bardem and Penelope Cruz, who do at least seem to be portraying actual, feeling human beings – albeit ones who would never credibly say the things the script requires them to say.

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“OK, show me sad again?”

Fassbender is, a bit surprisingly, one of the weakest links. For whatever reason he clearly didn’t want to be there, and you can’t help regretting that he didn’t get his wish. It’s a painfully stilted performance, with one or two moments which reach levels of embarrassingly forced E-M-O-T-I-O-N I would rank alongside reigning champion Leonardo di Caprio’s work in Inception (2010) as some of the most unconvincing expressions of grief ever edited into a film’s theatrical cut (as opposed to “director’s” or “final” cuts).

Fassbender’s conversations with Cruz are especially bizarre, as her own performance is a relative master-class in warmth and believable emotion. It’s like watching a real person getting engaged to an indestructible, steel-grinned cyborg – programmed to go through all the superficial rituals of a human love affair, but without any comprehension of their emotional significance. Don’t do it, Penelope! His CPU can never interface with your heart!

Ridley Scott’s career trajectory seems very confusing when you first take a proper look at it. His biggest successes to date are, in order of personal preference:

A future dystopia/film noir mashup

A minimalist cross between the sci-fi and slasher genres

A swords-and-sandals action/thriller/wrestling film

A sentimental tragicomedy, exploiting the early-90’s “girl power” fad

A grim-and-gritty, “based on a true story” war film

It’s not just their subject matter, either – the films themselves are so distinct from each other, in tone and execution, that I don’t think a first-time viewer would ever guess that they were made by the same man. The mystery becomes clearer if we consider the possibility that Ridley Scott didn’t just start out as an ad-man, and then graduate to being a proper filmmaker once his creative balls dropped.

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“Who shall have this gold ounce, me boys?!”

In the golden age of Hollywood, the idea of a director as an “artist” would have been laughable. In the old system, directors were more like artisans – skilled craftsmen who would work hard to create products that functioned as well as they possibly could, to satisfy the needs of as wide an audience as possible.

To me, that’s the only explanation for Scott’s career – he’s closer to the old-fashioned “artisan” than the modern conception of a director as “auteur”. It explains the bizarre variety of his successes, and may also explain the bizarre misfire of The Counselor. After the Coens’ phenomenal success with No Country for Old Men, this was an uncharacteristically lazy attempt at jumping on someone else’s bandwagon, rather than building his own – the same kind of laziness that’s caused him to spend the last decade remaking his previous successes.

As the film’s critical failure proved, you can only rely on the good-will of a great reputation for so long. Scott needs to find his next “next big thing” soon if he wants to recapture the popular and critical success of the past works – and not just their box office numbers.

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