Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Counselor

Grade: 79/B+

There’s a scene in the pitiless new thriller The Counselor where Cameron Diaz’s femme fatale Malkina tells another character, “You don’t know someone until you know what they want.” 

That captures the cold nature not just of noir, but of the world of writer Cormac McCarthy, where greed is a constant, where almost everyone is a predator, and where the most dangerous person is the one whose motives are mysterious. The film, directed by Ridley Scott, plays as a more overtly philosophical companion piece to the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men. The Counselor isn’t as satisfying as that earlier picture, but then, it’s a film that’s even more determined to buck convention and alienate audiences, and that’s a thrilling thing to witness.

The titular, unnamed Counselor (Michael Fassbender) has a happy relationship with his innocent fiancée Laura (Penélope Cruz), but he’s a corrupt man at heart. The Counselor has a number of debts, and in order to pay them off and keep up his lavish lifestyle, he takes part in a drug deal with his friend, drug kingpin Reiner (Javier Bardem), and middleman Westray (Brad Pitt). But there’s a number of other players behind the scenes, including Reiner’s calculating wife Malkina. When things go bad and the dealers are ripped off, there’s hell to pay, and the Counselor finds himself in over his head.

There’s not much inner-life to the Counselor, but that’s largely purposeful. Played with icy remove by Fassbender, the character is a man who does dirty work safely and with a detached smile. Seeing him next to the excitable Bardem (who hilariously seems to be channeling Robert Downey, Jr.) and the coolly professional Pitt (as relaxed and charismatic here as he was in Moneyball), it suggests someone whose work has made him inhuman. Even when whispering sweet nothings to Laura under the covers, there’s little behind his eyes. The safety and intimacy of the close-ups in those scenes? All a lie. Compare that to the nasty but unpretentious nature of the brutal drug dealers, and it might be preferable to be with those where you know you’re not safe.

Scott shoots most of the early scenes with his typically painterly style, contrasting the slickness and sterility of the interiors with the harshness of the desert. It’s a rather effective choice, as it emphasizes the cold remove of the Counselor’s lifestyle while suggesting that something more primal, more violent is on its way to tear it down. That violence is presented with a matter-of-factness that’s chilling (the use of wire in two remarkable set-pieces is particularly horrific) The fear of mortality has long been the dominant theme in Scott’s work, and here, it takes death knocking on the door to make the Counselor more recognizably human.

Some have found the film’s portrayal of women somewhat queasy and misogynistic, with Cruz designated to a victim role and Diaz vamping it up (rather enjoyably) as the malicious Malkina. Certainly many will cite the unease most men regard Malkina, especially in a batshit flashback in which she does unmentionable things to a very nice car. It’s less about their gender and more about the unforgiving world the film takes place in, where only the cruelest and most controlling have a chance, and keeping control might mean doing something inexplicable, just to make someone else terrified of you, to make yourself more mysterious- and more dangerous.

McCarthy’s first screenplay is florid, to a degree that sometimes grinds the narrative gears to a halt as characters muse on the possibility of death and what it means in 10-minute dialogue scenes. But that also makes The Counselor one of the year’s most fascinating films. The plot’s murky nature will likely frustrate many, but McCarthy is more interested the nature of the men and women behind evil deeds, what it takes for them to survive, and whether they can live with the consequences. In a world of safe films, the aggressive, frequently off-putting The Counselor stands out.

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