In defense of The Counselor — a bleak, brilliant film

counselor

Ridley Scott’s The Counselor opened to awful reviews, a distinct lack of buzz, and poor grosses — not to mention a “D” Cinemascore rating (whatever that is). But guess what? I think it’s brilliant. And as you’ll see below, a small but vocal minority agrees with me.

I’ll have more to say about this film, but in brief, here are a few reasons why I was so impressed:

  • It’s a nasty sucker-punch of a film — bleak, sharp-edged, and doom-laden. When is the last time you could say that about a star-studded studio release?
  • Cormac McCarthy’s script is strange and unique, ignoring many of the common screenwriting rules we expect to see. The story is often impossible to understand — and that did not bother me a bit. Because we know where it’s going.
  • The performances are uniformly stellar, especially Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, and Cameron Diaz. In fact, I think Diaz deserves Supporting Actress Oscar consideration. Seriously.
  • Fassbender is an ideal in-over-his-head non-character. He doesn’t even have a name! (He is “The Counselor,” period.) Fassbender = America? Probably. (See F.X. Feeney’s thoughts below.)
  • There are scenes, lines of dialogue, and images that will stay with you for days, much like Drive. (I think there is a lot in common with those two, actually.)
  • It is a bold, uncompromising film, and I am not sure why anyone thought it would prove a box office success. I expect it will develop a real cult following over the years.

Here are some thoughts from the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis, the great F.X. Feeney (he commented on Ms. Dargis’s review), Hollywood Elsewhere’s Jeffrey Wells, and Variety’s Scott Foundas:

Manohla Dargis:

“Nothing is spoken in The Counselor even as everything is said. Westray (Pitt), sly as a fox, and Reiner (Bardem), his face jutting into the frame like a cathedral gargoyle, share bloody tales that only make ghastly sense later. This is no country for anyone. … Every so often, someone says something that puts the stakes and intensifying throb of fear into unambiguous perspective. Westray tells the Counselor that the cartel will ‘rip out your liver and feed it to your dog.’ This isn’t a warning; it’s a statement of fact.”

F.X. Feeney:

“All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men, and The Road were fine, sincere adaptations of McCarthy’s novels, but each fell short of the originals. Here we have a work written for the screen, and it’s the best film yet to have his name on it. … When it was all over, another hostile colleague, surprised at my admiration asked me: ‘Okay, you liked it so much: What the hell was the point of that picture?’ It is this: The Counselor has made a bad choice for which he must pay. Given our recent history, his predicament is a meditation on the fate of America. He assumes because he meant well, all will turn out well. How can it? That becomes both a moral yet highly suspenseful question, expressed from McCarthy’s depths and realized with lucid energy by Ridley Scott.”

Jeffrey Wells:

“I recognize that my admiration for The Counselor may be a minority view, but I know a class act when I see and hear one. I love that The Counselor sticks to its thematic guns (including a very tough philosophical view of greed and frailty) and that it doesn’t back off an inch from what McCarthy and Scott are surely aware will be regarded by mainstreamers as an unpopular approach to narrative development and character fate. The basic thematic lesson is that there are so many serpents slithering around the Mexican drug business that investing yourself in this realm to any degree is tantamount to suicide. Not exactly fresh information, perhaps, but it’s the singer, not the song.”

Scott Foundas:

“[The Counselor] is bold and thrilling in ways that mainstream American movies rarely are, and its rejection suggests what little appetite there is for real daring at the multiplex nowadays. … The Counselor is one of the best films Ridley Scott has made in a career that is not often enough credited for just how remarkable it has been.”