Directed by: Ridley Scott
The Plot: A successful lawyer decides to invest his money into drug-trafficking. The returns are quick and enormous, as are the consequences for mixing in the company of killers. When a simple misunderstanding leads to a shipment of drugs being hijacked the lawyer finds himself not just on the wrong side of the law - but the lawless as well.
The Film: About Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian horror virtuoso Stephen King wrote in his autobiography On Writing:
"The Grapes of Wrath is, of course, a fine novel. I believe that Blood Meridian is another, although there are great whacks of it that I fully don't understand. What of that? I can't decipher the words to many of the popular songs I love, either."
Which, if we're discussing Ridley Scott's adaptation of Cormac's one and only screenplay The Counselor, seems to fit just fine. Although it certainly isn't the best work in either Ridley or Cormac's stable, it's a provocative one. Even if there are great whacks of the film - as King put it - that I doubt anyone can fully understand.
The Coen brothers successfully adapted McCarthy's No Country For Old Men because the Coens, like Sergio Leone before them, knew that faces can create landscapes all their own when the literal landscapes you're left to film your movie in are arid and barren. The Coens injected doses of personality whenever and however they could. Ridley's film, outside of Javier Bardem's drug financier, Reiner, (if you've seen the trailer, he's the guy who looks like someone lobbed a pomade grenade into his hair) has next to none. This is a stark, antisocial film. Exsanguinated of oxygen-rich blood - even while the screen seems drenched in the stuff.
The cinematic effect is like having your heart plucked out and dropped into a bucket of ice water.
Ridley Scott's made a career of crafting movies that are, first and foremost, visually seductive. In the interest of transparency it's the first reason I'm a huge fan of the filmmaker. Nobody's movies are as clean and pressed as Ridley's movies are. He creates cinematic landscapes by actually creating landscapes. The story isn't secondary necessarily, but it's close. The trouble with The Counselor is that when you add Scott's clean aesthetic to Cormac's lean writing the combination is antiseptic - to the point it's almost an emotional white-out.
Which is odd because for a McCarthy adaptation, this screenplay is much more sexually charged than the author's other work, (the film opens with a bang, to use the parlance of the damned) and to Ridley's ultimate credit, he adds nothing or removes nothing from the language of Cormac's written work. This is Cormac McCarthy's lurid strain of literary cancer. Ridley Scott presents it as it is, morbid and cynical.
If there's a positive side to creating a film as anesthetized as this one is it's that when there's an outpouring of emotion, or blood, the effect is striking.
Most of the blood is drawn by the agents of the drug cartels, which, in true Cormac fashion, remain a nearly nameless entity in this story. Its executioners are merely tendrils of an ancient wickedness, reaching out of the void to lay claim to the plane of man. What they lack in motivation for their violence they more than make up for in creativity.
There's an early scene in The Counselor where Fassbender's Counselor (it's really his name in this movie) is seeking to buy a diamond in Amsterdam for his girlfriend. As it is with most of the film, the reasons why he's buying in Amsterdam (and not Antwerp - or even at home) aren't revealed to us. He's simply in Amsterdam. In the scene we learn that the prettiest diamonds are that way because of their defects. That a perfect diamond is almost transparent.
Later in the movie Brad Pitt's senior criminal personality, Westray, asks the Counselor if he's ever seen a snuff film. A film that by merely viewing it you're participating in the crime of making it.
I can only speak for myself, but between these two moments in the movie it felt like McCarthy's script was openly acknowledging its imperfections and the general effect it would have on an audience that wasn't packed with anyone but the criminally insane.
This is a transparent film - but there is some small amount of color to keep you turning it over in your head days after you've seen it. And maybe even by seeing it, you've been made an accessory to the crime of its creation.
And that.... is about as much McCarthy-philosophical as I'd like to wax this morning.
The Verdict: I've landed on the wrong side of movies before. Last year's Killing Them Softly is a prime example of a film that just didn't wash for me on my first viewing, but upon further examination I sort of self-discovered its quality. I do feel that The Counselor just might be the same kind of thing - but I'm bewildered giving it a grade at this point. In fact, in the interest of even more transparency, I ask that you not trust the four stars I've given the film - because I certainly don't.
This is most definitely not a movie that's going to take care of you, or love you in return. It's unsympathetic and well past the point of comfortably complicated. The Counselor is a film wallowing in greed and gross misconduct, and it goes about its terrible business with a manic appetite.