The Counselor (2013)

Director: Ridley Scott

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By Roderick Heath

Ridley Scott’s latest film has stirred extremely divided responses in the critical and general audiences, with reviews quite literally ranging from those hailing it as the worst movie ever made to masterpiece. This makes it almost by default one of the most interesting releases of this year, a time of general indifference and enforced consensus, offering the hopes of surprise that someone, even someone lodged at the safe end of the Hollywood spectrum like Scott, can have stirred such intense responses. But Scott, coming off two uneven, big-budget spectacles, Robin Hood (2010) and Prometheus (2012), is actually a past master at shifting directorial gears, and like Hitchcock and Huston before him, prone to making some movies as working holidays. Indeed, some of his lower-wattage projects have been his best. But The Counselor, although shifting from the large scale to the small, represents no dip in ambition. Scott here tackles an original screenplay penned by acclaimed, but famously unforthcoming author Cormac McCarthy, his first venture in the field, and harks back to the famous collaborations of Carol Reed and Graham Greene. McCarthy and Scott share an evident interest in the crime genre, but neither approaches it in a familiar fashion. Much as McCarthy’s novels blur the mode’s boundaries with the Western, whilst veering its deeper concerns into the punitive teachings of folk tales and biblical parable, Scott’s affinity for neo-noir has usually been explored with a twist. Blade Runner (1982) was, of course, a scifi movie as well as a detective thriller, whilst Black Rain (1989) and Thelma and Louise (1991) anatomised cultural problems via genre plots, and Matchstick Men (2004) provided self-satire.

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The Counselor sets out to both honour and critique the classic noir tale. Many of the genre’s most essential notions are present: double-crosses, innocents falling into infernal realms, terrifying revelations of the permeable wall between over and underworlds, well-laid plans going haywire, fetishistic delight mixed with straitlaced repugnance in regarding forbidden pleasures, the all-conquering femme fatale, and agents of evil doubling as angels of fate. But The Counselor is not mere homage. Critic Scott Foundas notably recognised its kinship with John Boorman’s seminal Point Blank (1967) in its simultaneously futurist and primitive atmosphere. Although squarely set in the here and now, The Counselor stretches in thematic reference from the destruction of Sodom to some future apocalypse, and the visual lexicon feels close to science fiction in some aspects and primeval in others. It also hews close to the visceral version of neo-noir popularised in the 1980s, like Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (1983), John Dahl’s The Last Seduction (1992), Peter Medak’s Romeo Is Bleeding (1993), and even Robert Harmon’s genre-blurring, subliminal The Hitcher (1987). Scott’s interest in systematology is also apparent, as follow-up to American Gangster’s (2007) efforts to encompass the drug trade on a near-sociological level. One of the The Counselor’s three criss-crossing narrative lines follows one special drug shipment inside a septic tanker. The tanker, grimy and shabby, moves according to the whims of several vying owners, but always keeps rolling like inexorable fate to its intended destination. Perhaps the most important intersecting line of Scott and McCarthy’s sensibilities is their cynical attitude to money as toxic agent in human endeavours, a device that exposes weakness and sparks will to power.

One of McCarthy’s now-familiar methods is to build narratives around characters who could be described as the also-rans in most crime fiction, not great heroes or villains, but variably competent shmucks who find themselves outmatched on an almost cosmic level and fall by the wayside. They’re the kind of loser who turns up as a corpse on page 76 of a Phil Marlowe novel, the look of shock still marked on their face from the moment of death reflecting their sudden lesson in not being the cleverest men in the universe. Scott, for his part, usually has affection for idealistic, but similarly outmatched figures, a condition even his titanic heroes like Christopher Columbus suffer.

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The titular and otherwise nameless Counselor (Michael Fassbender) is a successful lawyer with a large roster of seamy clients and the trappings of success. He and his girlfriend Laura (Penélope Cruz) are introduced in bed, at first entirely swathed under white sheets that cling to their outlined forms that evoke both baptismal robes and shrouds. The rawness of their couple’s sexuality doesn’t belie the evident truth that this is their Eden moment, and Laura’s first words, asking her lover if he’s awake, start the ball rolling on the film’s enquiry about states of awareness and pitches the work in that moment of wakefulness where the substance of reality isn’t quite discernible from a dream. The Counselor plans to pop the question, and does so after buying an expensive loose diamond from an Amsterdam dealer (Bruno Ganz) who walks the Counselor through technical matters of evaluating diamonds. The dealer introduces him to a “cautionary” diamond, an object that has outlived many merely mortal owners: the history of human greed, hope, and frailty has left no mark on its pristine surface.

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One major aspect of The Counselor that quickly asserts itself is its emphasis on interpersonal dialogue: much of the film’s first half offers fairly simple scenes of the characters talking. McCarthy’s stylised dialogue is reminiscent of old-school noir and its roots in Marcel Carne’s poetic realist films and Val Lewton’s oneiric horror movies, even traditions of modernist and vernacular poetry, whilst also creating kinship with recent filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, David Mamet, and Neil Jordan in filtering that harsh romanticism through modern gab.

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The Counselor has a series of encounters with garrulous characters who are all, in their way, trying to warn him about something. The jeweller does so, in an abstract way, whilst his business confreres Reiner (Javier Bardem) and Westray (Brad Pitt) do so more urgently and with specific illustrations and examples, because they’re involved in the drug trade and know the kinds of people they deal with, and insist on making the Counselor absolutely knowledgeable about the risks he’s now taking. Reiner is one of the Counselor’s clients but also a friend and business partner in a nightclub they’re financing jointly, but because the Counselor’s finances have gone awry, and he decides to join forces with Reiner and Westray. Reiner is enjoying the highlife with his girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz), whilst Westray tells the Counselor that he’s arranged his affairs so that he can disappear at the drop of a hat, and that he’d be happy living in a monastery if it wasn’t for his taste for women, a taste he has in fatefully common with Reiner.

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Whereas Bardem bedazzled many playing a McCarthy fiend in No Country for Old Men (2007), here he plays a very different character, a chatty, fatuous, misogynistic playboy with a punkish hairdo, one who’s become accustomed to his luxurious, ill-gotten lifestyle, but who has no actual killer instinct. He and Malkina are first glimpsed watching with indulgent pleasure, complete with cocktails, as their two pet cheetahs chase down rabbits out in the hinterland. Reiner confidently believes that women have no moral compass and that the only thing they don’t like in a man is being bored, attitudes that might stem from his discomforting proximity to Malkina, whose affectations of predatory intent stretch to having cheetah spots tattooed on her back. In the film’s funniest and strangest scene, Reiner recounts to the Counselor with lingering unease and distaste when Malkina quite literally insisted on having sex with his car: she sat herself split-legged on the windscreen and rubbed her groin against the glass, a vision Reiner queasily compares to a catfish or other bottom feeder working its way up the aquarium tank glass. This marvellously weird moment crystallises the vagina dentata anxiety that underpins the femme fatale figure, whilst allowing Scott a chance to acknowledge the crackle of the erotic that’s always underlain his fascination with sleekly tactile surfaces. Indeed, one of the more amusing but expressive aspects of the film is its misè-en-scene, which pits Scott’s familiar modes of film décor in dialectic opposition. The Counselor and Reiner live in houses of ultra-modernist minimalism, as if to declare themselves ahistorical beings without fear of the tides of history, whilst the dirty work is done in degraded zones of industry and lunar outskirts, and godlike kingpins lounge in rococo elegance.

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Aspects of The Counselor are hardly original in this branch of genre cinema, not even some of McCarthy’s vaunted metaphors. What is original about the film is the way it works through the film noir story template in a fashion more akin to Greek tragedy and horror films, setting up ominous suggestions of things that will come to pass with hints of oracular and morally significant purpose, and then following through on them unrelentingly. McCarthy’s plot is a kind of anti-thriller, depicting the Counselor as a man who’s constantly warned he’s getting in over his head, and then finds to his shock that he’s powerless to prevent awful things happening. Reiner asks the Counselor if he knows what a bolito is, and explains the nasty device’s function, a slow decapitation with a motorised, unbreakable wire slipped around a quarry’s neck. Westray asks if the Counselor has ever seen a snuff film, and then recounts one he saw in which a young woman was beheaded for an underworld overlord’s amusement. Both of these examples of brutality are so extreme and random that the Counselor processes them as far-out campfire tales. But soon we become aware that these are Chekhovian guns, presented via anecdote and soon to be made use of in the imminent, bloodcurdling unspooling of predestined ends.

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The sense of being caught within systems one doesn’t entirely comprehend or see major parts of is key to The Counselor, a feeling exacerbated by Scott and McCarthy’s resistance to spelling everything out. There are insinuations about dealings that link Malkina, Reiner, and Westray, and the precision with which Malkina works to destroy both men is telling, but ambiguous. They present a triangulation of criminal intent that the Counselor is foolish enough to get involved in, even as it seems, surrounded by the trappings of their great success, like a good idea. Malkina’s background is chillingly hinted at when she mentions her parents died after being thrown out of a helicopter over the ocean. The overlords are never seen, only the cogs of the great machine, a motif that gives confirmation to the Kafkaesque overtone of the protagonist’s designation.

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Scott opens the film with the truck being loaded in Mexico for its journey to Chicago, and charts the mechanisms designed to ensure its smooth movement. One human cog is the motorbike-riding son (Richard Cabral) of one of the Counselor’s clients, Ruth (Rosie Perez). Nicknamed The Green Hornet, he takes cash at high speed across the border, and is also charged with handing over the part of the truck’s engine, once it’s been deposited on the American side of the border, to its next drivers. Ruth, a hard-bitten gangster, asks the Counselor to bail out her son when he’s arrested for speeding. The Green Hornet, however, proves the target of Malkina’s project to throw a spanner in the works with a hired assassin, “the Wireman” (Sam Spruell), lying in wait for him to take possession of the engine part.

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Scott stages this malicious sequence on a vast plain at sunset, blazing blood-red fires and silhouetted stony rises as backdrop to the killer’s methodical construction of a brutal trap for the rider, stringing a wire across the road he knows no one but his prey will be using, at a height exactly calculated to decapitate him. There’s a fiendish variety of patience and deadpan attentiveness to this scene, as what’s going to happen is made deadly clear and played through exactly as intended, boiling the film’s atavistic, deterministic sensibility down to an essence. The motif of decapitation recurs throughout the film, an extraordinarily gruesome and medieval kind of killing exacted through various means.

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The Counselor has kinship with the TV series Breaking Bad (2008-13) and Oliver Stone’s Savages (2012), two successful, recent derivations of the neo-noir tradition. All three evoke the horrors of drug cartel violence as a stygian realm where all moral standards dissolve, and hapless gringos who regard the trade as a mere cash cow soon learn monsters are after them. The Counselor features a “Breaking Bad” cast member, Dean Norris, who plays a dumbstruck cartel associate who’s privileged with a glimpse of the sickest of sick jokes by another factotum (John Leguizamo): a corpse that’s been sealed inside a tank with the rest of the shipment and is bound to be shipped back and forth across the continent in lieu of actually disposing of the body. Where Stone’s film was absurdist and pulled genre givens apart with meta-narrative and self-reflexive satire, Scott and McCarthy offer a film that burns like liquid nitrogen, with flickers of a sense of humour so black as to be an event horizon. An older ancestor is Anthony Mann’s Border Incident (1949), with similar motifs of border crossing as passage between civilisations, even epochs, and of journeys through an alternative world, as the truck crawls up through North America’s alimentary canal. Early in the film, the two Mexican drivers who take the truck into the U.S. note a train of illegal immigrants heading across the border. Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) likewise had a desolated fascination for the borderlands as zone of cultural nullity. Like Mann and Peckinpah, Scott and McCarthy here have a fascination for the terrible beauty of violence; indeed, the film’s narrative as a whole has a tone like the memorable tractor sequence of Mann’s work, a sensation of being paralysed in the path of a grim death.

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Malkina’s plot to have the truck with its load stolen proves an elaborate misdirection, albeit one with a deadly consequence. With the presumption that the Counselor, Reiner, and Westray have connived in crossing the greater powers, calamity immediately threatens them: Westray makes good on his capacity to disappear quickly and advises the Counselor to do the same, but the latter, encumbered by worldly cares and the belief that reason and explanation might prevail, is far too slow in getting going. Perhaps laden with a sense of fatalism, so is Reiner; he tries to run when the killers come to call, and is chased and gunned down. In the course of shooting Reiner, the assassins accidentally free his pet cheetahs, who scare off the armed men and proceed to wander the landscape like unleashed spirits of animalism. The Counselor arranges for Laura to leave New Mexico, flee the nebulous zone between countries, and take refuge in the presumed safety of the American heartland, but Laura doesn’t make it. She is taken prisoner at the airport, and the Counselor travels to Mexico to try to get in touch with the kingpins and plead for his and Laura’s lives.

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Whilst McCarthy’s artistic imprint on the film is vital, Scott takes to it like one of those cheetahs to a hare. A beautifully styled exploration of the abyss, this could be Scott’s darkest film to date, and his most shapely in a long time. Scott’s usual type of hero tends to strive against forms of social exclusion and culturally ingrained limitations of vision, whereas his antiheroes, plentiful in his oeuvre, have similar motives but have become cynical about them. A sense of protagonists spiralling down the ethical plughole is common in his films, as are battles with grotesque others that stand in for mutating moral distress, like the astonishing fight Christopher Columbus has with the berserkers from the forest that encapsulates the horror following first contact in 1492: The Conquest of Paradise (1992), and to Rick Deckard’s confrontation of his own weakness and sanctioned cruelty in Blade Runner, whilst the accord between hero and villain in American Gangster was built around precisely their divergent reactions to the same formative forces. Whereas Michael Mann, perhaps Scott’s major rival in Hollywood as premiere stylist and neo-noir specialist, tends to abstract his heroes and dissociate them from social paradigms to focus on their private ethics, Scott always firmly contextualises his. Even in a film as seemingly lightweight as A Good Year (2007), a constant stress is placed on his crass hero as avatar for a newer, ever more ravenous world of European capitalism, one that’s accessible to outsiders like him, but with the codicil that he has to be more unscrupulous, more insensate, than anyone else. Similarly, the note of a fight for survival against an opposing force that is inimical to rational appeal echoes back not just to Alien (1979), but also to his very first film, The Duellists (1977), where two men war for decades for reasons neither exactly understands: there is only a standard of behaviour that has been found wanting and must be punished, and indeed, this is exactly the situation here.

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Not for nothing, then, does Scott have his last act partly play out back “home” in London’s glitzier districts, climaxing in an elaborate, almost giallo film scene of elaborate stalking and execution that leaves tourists and yuppies splattered with blood and severed fingers lying on the cobbles. It’s Scott’s gleefully nasty metaphor for the crack-up of the British financial sector, a notion reinforced by the narrative’s portrait of ruthless capitalism’s fallout spreading from the U.S. to Europe. Malkina’s plot turns out not to be aimed at the drug deal at all: this was only a mechanism to get Westray moving, his escape plan turned into perfect money delivery for Malkina, who hires a blonde escort (Natalie Dormer) to honey-trap him. It’s amusing to consider Bardem’s presence in this film whilst his earlier work this year in Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, a film with an almost exactly opposite spiritual and philosophical position to this one, is fresh in the memory. In one sequence, Malkina, intrigued by Laura’s Catholic background and its confused impact on her sexual sensibility, visits a priest (Édgar Ramírez) to taunt him with erotic reminiscences under the guise of confession. This could almost be a direct send-up of that film, whilst digging into the same, ever-present rupture in a modern world of exhausted paradigms and insufficient replacements that cannot heal the rift separating the elusively redemptive from the corporeal. Such a schismatic, anguished sense of existence that some of Scott’s most memorably tortured characters, like Roy Batty in Blade Runner and Commodus in Gladiator (2000), feel with emotional urgency, drive them to homicidal acts against their creators. Malick’s and Scott’s films also share deeper connecting strands in spite of their thematic opposition, particularly in their sense of the American interior as unfinished space where wilderness and suburban stability cohabit in disorientating closeness, and the concurrent possibilities for rapture and damnation seem similarly extreme and wide open.

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McCarthy often invokes biblical imagery, borrowing the voice of a wilderness preacher in his invocations of hellfire and Old Testament justice, but does so ironically with his existential conviction that the void rather than heaven or hell await, whilst his stories often skirt the edges of a virtually nihilistic sensibility. But The Counselor confirms he’s more a harsh moralizer who justifies his stance by constantly looking at worst-case scenarios, giving real force to ethical questions by studying them with a method close to Shakespearean tragedy, watching fatal choices create whirlwinds of carnage to prod a greater awareness of the mesh of niceties that keeps the world inhabitable. The film’s narrative is predicated around two choices: the Counselor’s decision to get involved in crime, and the blonde escort’s rejection of Malkina’s payment after realising that it’s more than a robbery she’s planning, all but throwing down her 30 pieces of silver and repenting. This last piece is almost a throwaway, one of the many vignette-like asides that dot the film, but it feels crucial in retrospect, as it sharply contrasts the Counselor’s choices, a deliberate turning of the blind eye; whilst the blonde’s choice actively repudiates Reiner’s contention that women are immoral, it still comes with a host of sarcastic meaning, as it doesn’t hurt Malkina’s programme one bit, and won’t stop Westray’s assassination, a note Malkina happily acknowledges as she kisses the blonde off with a quip. Otherwise the film maintains a portrait of moral rot on an epidemic level, with corrosive free radicals on the loose.

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Meanwhile, the truck with its forbidden load keeps moving, stolen by Malkina’s men and stolen back by the cartel’s men in a roadside gunfight that turns a lonely stretch of road into a war zone. The one remaining cartel gunman simply drives the truck onto a friendly wrecker’s yard and gets himself and the vehicle patched up, and on the load rolls to its original destination. The safe return of the vehicle doesn’t change the situation for the collaterally damaged. The Counselor gets in touch with a cartel boss, Jefe (Rubén Blades), in an effort to make a deal for Laura, but he finds that not only can’t Jefe help, but Jefe insists on giving a positively poetic explanation that, essentially, consequences are already truths, and that he can’t talk or buy his way back into the land of the living. The cruelty of the narrative here moves beyond mere circumstance into the very method. The viewer is forced to share the Counselor’s frustrated disbelief and the mismatch between the awful urgency of the moment and the calm, oracular wisdom of Jefe, his earlier glib patience on listening to long-winded warnings now curdling into sweaty, despairing frustration that he can’t change the situation. Scott and McCarthy viciously undercut the usual expectation that some kind of brilliant scheme can be formulated, a la The Firm (1992), or even a noble act of self-sacrifice.

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The Counselor, a bystander in his own film, is left wandering in shellshock and infinite apprehension on the streets of a Mexican city. In another of the film’s seemingly off-the-cuff but actually revealing vignettes, filmed with a flavour of punch-drunk dissociation that recalls Val Lewton’s films, the Counselor wanders into the midst of a rally being held to memorialise victims of the drug war. This communal act of mourning and protest is entirely indifferent to the Counselor’s presence, but also one implicitly, both in sympathy with and accusing him. The narrative’s bleak terminus has an allusive concision that again recalls Lewton, as the Counselor receives a package that, with the information given earlier, sees the apparently banal suddenly, plainly becoming a ticket to the ninth circle of hell. More promethean than Scott’s Prometheus, this saga conjures the spectacle of a man being chained up by the gods to have his liver eaten daily by guilt, fear, and horror. Like Oedipus, another ancient Greek fool of fortune, the Counselor sees but does not comprehend his sins until revealed, by which time it’s much, much too late. A coda hands the attention back to Malkina, but having devoured everything in her path, she proves less a triumphant villain than prophetess for a new, unspeakable age where the best predator will survive.

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The Counselor is obviously not a conventional crowd-pleaser. In fact, it could be as much the opposite of a crowd-pleaser as any studio film of recent years, though the pungent gallows humour and gaudy, giddy style leavens the experience somewhat. Even a concession many neo-noir films make to the wry pleasure in seeing an evil but charismatic bitch-goddess win in works like Body Heat is twisted here into a perverted caricature of itself. Doubtless this aspect, in addition to its apparently cold and merciless attitude, accounts for the polarity of its reception. But it’s also the quality that makes The Counselor feel special, the sense of lawlessness underlying its pristine and peerlessly professional form, McCarthy’s blissful disconnection from the set rhythms of contemporary Hollywood screenwriting even as he reveals affection for genre work past, and Scott’s capacity to keep me watching. That same disconnection does account for the film’s weaker aspects, the slightly adolescent tone to Malkina’s calculated blasphemies and the clichéd Madonna/whore diptych of her and Laura that is only inverted from traditional imagery by swapping hair colours. Also, Diaz’s performance feels too archly calculated to entirely persuade. The curious thing about The Counselor is that it’s a film defined as much by absences as presences, narrative dealt out in clipped parcels whilst its essential thesis explored not through the usual redemption narrative but the pointed lack of one, a humanistic despair reflected through its worst nightmares. But whilst the film references classical tragedy, the solemnity of tragedy is even scorned, as the film concludes with the same mockingly upbeat Latin rhythms it began with. Still, The Counselor actually does film noir a great service in apparently subverting it, returning actual gravitas and unnerving impudence to the genre, and along with it some of the quaking existential fear it once transmitted.

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