In defense of The Counselor — a bleak, brilliant film

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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.”

 

Wednesday Round-Up: Friedkin’s Failed “Sorcerer,” Cinephilia’s Survival, and Tarkovsky’s Polaroids

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“I was listening to an album by Miles Davis called Sorcerer, with driving rhythms and jagged horn solos that characterized Miles’s band in the late 1960s. We painted the word Sorcier (French for ‘Sorcerer’) on the other truck, and I later decided to call the film ‘Sorcerer,’ an intentional but ill-advised reference to The Exorcist. The original title I’d proposed was ‘Ballbreaker.’”

So writes director William Friedkin in his recently released career-spanning memoir “The Friedkin Connection.” The book is a must-read for fans of 70s cinema, and an ideal companion to a book I’d imagine Friedkin hates, Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.” (I briefly discussed the book in a recent buffalospree.com post.)

Whenever I read a book like this, I’m intrigued not by the tales of success — quite frankly, I’ve read enough about the making of “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist” — but of failure. (That’s why I am dying to find a bio of Michael Cimino.)

Friedkin has had his share, and he goes into great detail about them here. Yes, there is “Cruising,” but he is especially candid about his version of Clouzot’s “Wages of Fear,” titled “Sorcerer.” I rented the Roy Scheider-starring flop a few years ago, and found it taut, well-made, and compelling. (Incidentally, Friedkin still maintains that the film needed a star, and rues the day he spurned Steve McQueen: “I realized a close up of Steve McQueen was worth the greatest landscape you could find.”)

As Friedkin recently explained to Vulture, does not consider “Sorcerer” to be a remake, and in some ways, perhaps Friedkin faced the same issue David Fincher faced with “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” As Fincher made clear, and any astute viewer could discern, the first entry in the Lisbeth Salander saga was most certainly not a remake of the popular Swedish version. It was simply another film based on Stieg Larsson’s book.

Friedkin:

“It’s not a remake of ‘The Wages of Fear’! Somebody’s probably doing ‘Hamlet’ somewhere right now; that’s not a remake of ‘Hamlet.’ ‘Sorcerer’ is a new version of a classic story, a novel by a French author named Georges Arnaud. Certainly my film was inspired by Clouzot’s film, which I consider a masterpiece. But then-contemporary audiences in the English-speaking world did not know ‘Wages of Fear’ that well. I felt that the underlying theme, the subject matter, and the characters were important enough to do a new version. Now, did some critics have their knives out? I think that would be to undervalue the nature of film criticism. I would hope not, but you’re posing the question, so it has to be possible. Occasionally, what happens when a filmmaker or artist is extremely successful in a certain period, there do seem to be critics who come out with reevaluations for one reason or another. I do know that I very much thought I was the center of the universe at the time. And a lot of people probably were waiting for me to crash.”

Copyright issues have surrounded “Sorcerer” for years, but it appears the director may finally have his say, with a remastered re-release on its way. There has never been a Friedkin Criterion release, but if ever one of his films cried out for such treatment, it is “Sorcerer.” In fact, there is even a “Sorcerer” blog, which is where the above image came from.

The rest of my Wednesday round-up:

  • Lots of good stuff on Vulture, including the many faces of “Mad Men”’s Ted Chaough (I think he and Harry Hamlin were this season’s unsung heroes), the late Richard Matheson’s classic “Twlight Zone” ep “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” in full, and 10 tidbits that did not make it into “The Bling Ring.”
  • Richard Brody talks about the long-awaited Criterion release of “Shoah,” and asks an important question: Will cinephilia survive without DVDs?
  • Criticwire lists its best of 2013 so far.
  • The Playlist has its usual fine mix of features and news; two highlights are a look at five movies that triumphed over bad buzz and five that did not, and a Russian teaser for Ridley Scott’s “The Counselor.”
  • Two from Empire: First, will Rick Moranis be returning to the big screen in “Ghostbusters 3”? Maybe. And second, did you spot all these “Man of Steel” Easter eggs? Doubtful.
  • And lastly, even Andrei Tarkovsky’s Polaroids were stunning. I wonder what he would have made of digital.