"The slaughter to come is probably beyond our imagining": a debate about the pleasures of The Counselor

After so much critical negativity, I found Ridley Scott's The Counselor to be delightful trashy fun with an almost endearing drug cartel. Predatory, Darwinian, casually vicious, what Oliver Stone's Savages (2012) wanted to be but wasn't due to studio compromises, The Counselor squares with my take on reality as infinitely remorseless without any opportunity for absolution, a place where even the affluent can quickly be reduced to garbage, the hunter is more compelling aesthetically than the victim, the spike in population growth will reach a critical mass, and, as Malkina (Cameron Diaz) cheerfully points out: "the slaughter to come is probably beyond our imagining."

And yet, the naysaying critics kept me from seeing the movie in the theatre, and only a residual affection for Cormac McCarthy's novels got me to see the movie on Blu-ray. To reflect those critics, I have a friend named W, the kind of guy who can recite chapter and verse the Rotten Tomatoes rating of every new release. As he says, "When you see the trailer for The Counselor, and you see all of these high level power players involved, with maybe the exception of Cameron Diaz. Actors, director, writer--everyone has great prestige, but then you watch the movie, it just doesn't live up to that potential even remotely, and because of that, critics just went "Wha? Wha?" They were confused, and they probably reacted more harshly than the movie warrants, but now you're watching it with such low expectations. So, you will approach it with a different mindset, especially since it is not a completely terrible film. I would say it's about half-good."

FD: For a sad person who has internalized all of this negative criticism, you just . . . fell into that.

W: No, I actively hated the first 30 minutes. I was like 'What the hell is this? What are the words that are coming out of their mouths?' As soon as Brad Pitt showed up and said, in so many words, we're all gonna die, I immediately liked the movie better. He sets up the latter half of the film in such a cynical way, I appreciated it, and when everything (spoiler alert) goes down hill, I thought that was kind of fun, but, I still didn't care about any of the characters.

FD: You have been suckered by all of the naysayers into not liking this modern-day trashy masterpiece. The End.

W: I would say the fundamental problem with the film is the script.

FD: HA!!

W: In terms of the construction of plot elements, it is perfectly fine, but in terms of character development, there are scenes that are handled so clumsily, and without any restraint of subtlety, that it comes off as barely watchable.

FD: Give me an example.

W: Cameron Diaz has some really stupid lines such as "Truth has no temperature." What does that mean?

FD: It's very cold. It's a very cold movie.

W: Duh. Why does she have to phrase it in such a flowery stupid way? There are these tangential moments that are either laughable, bad, or they progress the plot. I did enjoy those moments where Brad Pitt (who plays Westray) makes allusions to other weird things like snuff films.

FD: The snuff film reference prepares the viewer for a key scene late in the movie.

W: Most of the time, the movie is almost unintelligible. There are moments with Javier Bardem (Reiner) and some Hungarian guy talking, and I can't follow what they're saying.

FD: What scene are we talking about?

W: The scene with a Hungarian man and Michael Fassbender (who plays the counselor).

FD: They are in Amsterdam, and they are discussing the diamond that the counselor is thinking of buying for Laura (Penelope Cruz). That sets up a scene later when Malkina knows everything about the diamond just by looking at it. Meanwhile, Laura, as one of the "faint of heart" who will bring us to the "edge of ruin," does not know anything about the diamond except that its pretty. The diamond motif develops new meanings until the very last scene in the movie. McCarthy explores how every character creates his or her own reality, and Laura shows how she's just not aware. As Malkina points out, "What a world." Laura replies, "Do you think the world is strange?" And Malkina says, "I was talking about yours."

W: What is the point of the old man, though? It all seems thoroughly pointless.

FD: You just don't understand. Therefore, you don't like it.

W: I understand.

FD: You didn't even want to watch the beginning again on Blu-ray. You just want to judge it.

W: The film is at its best when no one is talking.

FD: ?!?!? What about the great scene later on when the counselor talks to the jefe, or the leader of the Cartel?

W: It's a beautiful scene, but it goes on way too long.

FD: People talk all of the time in Godard films. People talk all of the time in Tarantino films! There's nothing wrong with talk in a movie that works. You are saying that you just don't understand.

W: All of McCarthy's work so far has a philosophical edge to it. You look at the survivalism of The Road (2009) and the unbridled evil of No Country for Old Men (2007) and how the old cannot really contain the new evil.

FD: Right. You could say that's true for the drug cartel too, and they are pleasantly efficiently evil.

W: But it's so trashy. With The Counselor, McCarthy is trying to have his cake and eat it too. He's trying to make a typical fun noir thriller, but he's also trying to have all of these layers: quotes, references, allusions, and tangential connections, and you can't do both.

FD: A lot of great films are trashy yet serious at the same time: The Third Man, Psycho, Silence of the Lambs. People go back and reconsider. Those that were considered trash suddenly become the best films of the era.

W: All three of those films push the genre forward. The Counselor's overbearing Cosmopolis-like philosophical dialogue incoherently conflicts with its pulpier more fun action elements.

FD: I'm just saying that you don't understand.

W: You are just so wrong.

FD: On that note, we should probably stop before violence breaks out. Thanks for your thoughts.     


Joe Powell said…
Harsh critics nearly made me pass this by, but I ignored them and found the movie a true marvel. Yes it's grim, defies romanticized crime fiction. A fine defense of the movie is in Variety - http://variety.com/2013/film/columns/the-counselor-rearview-ridley-scott-1200770790/
Thanks, Joe. I was dumbfounded by the sense of dissociation between how much I enjoyed this movie and how much others disliked it. McCarthy's screenplay has a wonderful remorseless quality that one hardly finds in any movie--perhaps Inside Llewyn Davis, but not much else. So many other movies seem intent upon avoiding painful truths, upon delivering the same old hopeful palaver, in comparison.