Saturday, October 26, 2013

Review: "The Counselor"

Director: Ridley Scott
Runtime: 117 minutes

There's no denying that Ridley Scott's career has seen its share of ups and downs. From the mastery of Alien to the outright boredom of Robin Hood, the director has always been somewhat at the mercy of his material. Plenty of directors aren't writers, but few big name ones have a track record that covers the entire spectrum between masterpiece and total failure. Scott's best work tends to come out of adequate screenplays that he can elevate (Alien, Gladiator), or in strong ones that he then makes even better (Thelma and Louise, Matchstick Men). The same is all too true with The Counselor, which sees the veteran helmer join forces with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy. 

Given the author's status and legacy, you'd think that any flaws to be found in The Counselor might somehow be Scott's fault. In a strange twist of fate, it's actually the other way around. The Scott-McCarthy union is far from a train wreck it's been proclaimed in certain corners. In fact, it's often quite enjoyable, even as it blatantly flies in the face of your average viewer's expectations. Scott's direction is some of his best in years, while McCarthy turns in an original screenplay that easily ranks among his weakest works. However, there's enough of the Old Testament bleakness from the author's strongest pieces that keeps the story afloat. Plenty of great novelists have made bumpy transitions to screenwriting. McCarthy is no exception, but in Scott's hands The Counselor is a strangely satisfying, albeit totally ruthless, tale of greed and its consequences. 

When we're first introduced to the titular Counselor (Michael Fassbender) and his fiance Laura (Penelope Cruz), they're wrapped in white sheets, closed off from the world at large by the thinnest of barriers. Given the man responsible for the story, however, it's all too apparent that it won't take much to trap these blissful lovers in the mire of the world at large. Like so many of McCarthy's novels, The Counselor is set near the Texas-Mexico border, and involves its share of shady figures with opaque agendas. This time, however, the author has turned his attention to the grisliest possible side of human decay: drug trafficking, and the violence that goes with it. 

As such, Fassbender is something of an audience surrogate, even though the actor fills in the blanks from the page quite effectively. After his opening exchange with Laura, far and away the most pure individual, he makes his Faustian pact with the likes of club owner Reiner (Javier Bardem), his girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz), and middleman Westray (Brad Pitt). "You're not quite the straight dude people think you are," teases Reiner, and in a sense that's true. The Counselor's decision to dip his toe in the drug trade is a hint at his corruptible side. Yet compared with the likes of Reiner and Malkina, both dressed up in assortments of garish attire, the Counselor is largely just guilty by association.

Not content to merely establish this, McCarthy's script - as per usual - has more on its mind. As much as the film has been promoted as a blood-soaked thriller, there's very little violence over the nearly two hour duration. With no room on the page to fill with gorgeously-wrought passages about grand themes, McCarthy sticks a great deal of it in the mouths of his characters. It's a decision that provides any number of strong moment, but is still the film's Achilles Heel. As best as the cast try, there are some lines that are just too "written," and they feel clumsy coming out of the mouths of human beings, even ones as broadly symbolic as these. When Malkina tells Reiner that "truth has no temperature," the line lands with something of a thud. There's more to be said about Diaz's performance, but in this instance, the fault lies with the words, and not with the actor.

And since it's inevitable, it's best to just get this out of the way: The Counselor doesn't hold a candle to Joel and Ethan Coen's Oscar-winning adaptation of No Country for Old Men. No scene in this film reaches the cold, magnetic power of Anton Chigurh's strange conversation with a gas station attendant, for example. The Counselor is, undeniably, Mr. McCarthy operating at a broader level, which has its own advantages and disadvantages. The film tries to have it both ways, as a flashier sort of thriller than No Country, while still retaining its author's powerful essence. In a way, and I don't mean this as an insult, The Counselor is No Country for Old Men's pulpier, drunken cousin. 

So even though the material may not be as rich this time around, there's still a lot of good that Scott and his cast are able to wring out of the material, even as they stumble from time to time. Fassbender's nameless protagonist is a blank audience surrogate if ever there was one. Yet the Irish-German actor is able to find small ways of giving his character shadings of depth, even as he spends many of his scenes in a more passive position. And when it comes time for the Counselor to bear the fallout from his choices, Fassbender brings the same tortured intensity that he brought to his stunning turn in Steve McQueen's Shame two years ago, without any redundancy. Ms. Cruz, as the object of his affection, delivers lovely work with significantly less screen time. Laura is easily the sort of role who could have been cast with a nobody, left merely as a plot point. In Cruz, The Counselor finds an infinitely better option in casting the Oscar-winner, who is able to infuse her character with a warmth that makes one understand why the Counselor is so devoted to her. 

Meanwhile, on the other side of the film's moral spectrum, Cruz's real-life husband, Javier Bardem, has a ball as Reiner. The last time the actor took on a character from McCarthy's imagination, he walked away with an Oscar. That's unlikely to happen this time, but Bardem turns a rather cartoony role into something surprisingly multifaceted. Mr. Pitt, as a slimy-looking, washed up cowboy, is also effective in small doses. He and Bardem do the best job of bringing out the (intentional) humor in McCarthy's writing, as well as the more sinister elements. A series of small roles rounding out the significant players are also effective, though none more so than Rosie Perez as one of the Counselor's clients. It's the sort of effortlessly effective performance that makes you wish Perez had much, much more to do.

I've saved Ms. Diaz for last, because her's is easily the most puzzling performance. Though she suits the role perfectly from a visual standpoint - adorned with tattoos, two-tone hair, and a gold tooth - her actual work is sadly less consistent. Diaz has fun with her two best-written scenes (one involving a priest, the other with her lawyer), but other scenes go from good to bad, often within a single line reading. For every chilly stare or malevolent bit of teasing that works, there are any number of moments that leave the actress sounding far out of her depth. Malkina is the sort of twisted femme fatale that should have been this film's standout. Instead, she's disconcertingly uneven, and there are too many instances where the blame lies with Diaz, rather than with McCarthy's words. 

Thankfully, Mr. Scott and his collaborators keep the whole thing moving along quite nicely, and deliver a polished, if frequently imperfect film. For all of its broader elements, The Counselor is still classic McCarthy, and Scott attacks the pulpy material with enough gusto so as to ensure more than a few stand-out moments. Working with recent collaborator Dariusz Wolski, the film is as rich and glossy as Scott's best, without ever suffocating the material. And, for a director known for staging marathon-length action sequences, he's able to rattle off the film's few flashes of violence with elegance and brevity. Relatively new composer Daniel Pemberton also makes a powerful impression with his ghostly score, which lends even the plainest of dialogues an undercurrent of impending catastrophe. 

One of the Counselor's most frequently used words in the film is "Jesus." Whether hearing something outrageous (a scene with Malkina and car that's sure to leave one talking), or horrific, this invocation of a deity is perhaps his last line of defense from the inky black world in which he's enmeshed himself. At first Fassbender's delivery is almost casual, as though he has no true need of the same religion that Laura holds so dearly. Yet as things inevitably go south, that delivery becomes gradually more panicked. Yet a hollowness remains, but with a purpose: the Counselor needs the intervention of a benevolent higher power, yet also realizes that he's gone past the point of saving. 

That's the sort of world that Scott mercilessly plunges one into, and it's certainly not for everybody. But either way, it's likely to leave you talking about something. In one early scene, the Counselor visits a diamond dealer (Bruno Ganz), who informs him that what defines a diamond are its little flaws, and that "The perfect diamond would be composed of nothing but light." That sentiment also applies to this icy gut punch of a film. It may be littered with imperfections, some particularly disappointing, but in a sense they help define what makes this film - Scott's best in quite some time - work on its own terms so well.

Grade: B/B+

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