Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Counselor

Couples Therapy
How to Get a Head in Business

The Counselor is not "The Worst Movie Ever Made" (as some would have it) nor should such a withering condemnation (from a critic? *pfft*) warrant it any sort of pity-praise to escalate it above what it deserves. Pity is the last thing on the mind of The Counselor.

What it is is the first original screenplay by Cormac McCarthy—he also exec-produced—and directed, with a lavish budget for just about everything, including dirt, by Ridley Scott, who one should now probably call a "stylist," rather than a director. Everything looks great. But, again, one wonders if Scott read the script beyond descriptions.  

Like so much of McCarthy's work, it is dark and gritty and nihilistic—in a hopeful, moral kind of way; in other words, it's a story or very bad people doing very bad things from the point of view of a person who is tsk-ing in the background. Perfect director for this would have been Martin Scorsese. But, it's Ridley Scott who, given his past, seems to have a lot of sympathy for the devil (Blade Runner, Legend, Hannibal, Matchstick Men, American Gangster, Prometheus), indeed, in his last movie, the hero was, once again, a synthetic human being with its own sense of ethics. That synth was played, rather brilliantly, by Michael Fassbender, which is why he's the titular lead.
The thing about novelists doing screenplays and writing for the movies is they're slumming, unless they see themselves as legitimate film-makers (see the Coen Brothers or John Sayles).  Maybe McCarthy couldn't flesh out his characters for the novel form. Maybe he wanted to see what a film-maker wanted to do with a work he wasn't happy with and see what the collaborative process would produce. Maybe he wanted to make some money. But, for whatever reason, McCarthy chose to do this as a film, and not a fully thought out novel.
" in tooth and claw"
Maybe he just didn't like it. It's extraordinarily simplistic—The Counselor spends the first half warning its protagonist "Don't do this" and casually mentioning ways in which people can be killed, usually involving decapitation ("it's just business"). Once he's "locked in," it spends the second half eliminating most of the cast in precisely the ways that have been described in the first half. It answers the question that is contained in a couple of questions in that first half—"Why am I telling you this?" Obviously, so we can anticipate it being used later and knowing what's happening. In other words, literally, the first half of The Counselor is a prolonged "you just don't get it, do you?" speech. The second half, he gets it (I'd warn about spoilers here, but everything is telegraphed fairly early on, even "the surprise" puppet-master of the thing).
One interesting aspect of The Counselor is the cast...or, at least, the cast as it once was. Fassbender was always going to be in it, evidently, but the others were going to be real-life couples Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz, but slightly scrambled so that Bardem and Jolie would be a couple and Fassbender and Cruz would be paired. At some point, Jolie dropped out and Cameron Diaz was cast in her role. She's as fine as everybody else in the cast, but the dialog is difficult for swallow.  Take for example, this:
I suspect that we are ill-formed for the path we have chosen. Ill-formed and ill-prepared. We would like to draw a veil over all the blood and terror that have brought us to this place. It is our faintness of heart that would close our eyes to all of that, but in so doing it makes of it our destiny... But nothing is crueler than a coward, and the slaughter to come is probably beyond our imagining.
I remember a scene from the Elia Kazan film of The Last Tycoon where movie mogul Monroe Stahr in a fit of pique exits a screening saying "'And I, you...' nobody TALKS like that." Everybody talks like that in The Counselor, everybody's vocabulary is up to snuff, and everybody has the time to ponder and philosophize. But what their philosophy centers around is Nature, "red in tooth and claw." But Nature doesn't have the time to think about what it is doing, except strategically. If there is a slaughter to come for the human race, the meek won't inherit the Earth, but evidently the pretentious will. 

Everybody talks a good game in The Counselor, but it makes a bad movie.

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