Thursday, 10 January 2019

Three Years on: Was Ridley Scott's The Counselor that Bad?

What a reversal of fortune and fate movies can take,eh? Iconic director Ridley Scott teams with novelist Cormac McCarthy to deliver a modern morality tale about sex, drugs and consequence.Having an all-star cast certainly doesn’t hurt your film’s credibility, and the buzz around this film was considerable, to put it mildly. But like Steve Zaillian’s All The King’s Men seven years earlier, all thetalent in the world won’t shield a film from critical wrath, and a wrath indeed was laid upon this film.Accusations of being ‘slow, boring and pretentious’ sounded like war drums, and McCarthy’s distinctive dialogue was called ‘overwritten, indulgent and unnatural’ by many in the critical community. Add a mediocre box office, and you have what seems to eb a certified ‘turkey’. 

So, where do I stand on this? Boy, where or how does one start with this? Well, I'll throw this out to provide proper context: this isn't a high octance, blood & bosoms thriller. Don't go in expecting some akin to Pulp Fiction meets No Country for Old Men, contrary to what the marketing tried to present. This is more of a drama,and a slow burn one at that. Scott and McCarthy have instead crafted a gritty, dingy morality tale about the nature of choice and consequence set against a Mexican backdrop, and one filled with analogies and parables. In fact, for all of its big names and budget, it's very anti-Hollywood in its approach, ideas and ending.To make my thoughts easier to digest, as there is quite a lot to say, 

I'll split the following into Pros and Cons, as they both have knock on effects on one another. 

Ready? Let’s roll. 

The actual plot follows our titular character (Fassbender), a lawyer who has it all (Money and Cruz. Nuff said), as he decides to try his hand at the drugs trade with the help of some rather unusual middlemen (Pitt and Bardem). Of course, his naivety costs him dearly, and sets his world on an upside down turn.So, the Pros: Our casting quintet are excellent, as you'd expect, with Fassbender and Cruz' naive optimism and charisma a nice contrast to the distant, more deliberate and indulgent mentality that Pitt, Bardem and Diaz share as part of the drugs outfit. In fact, Bardem and Diaz serve as direct antithesis to our main couple, very much relishing their debauchery, and these two have an absolute ball with it.As for the technicals, the much undervalued Dariusz Wolski delivers cinematography that is nothing short of gorgeous. He captures the golden, sun baked landscapes and vibrant colours of Mexico andt he uncontrolled high life of these people, while contrasting that with the almost humourless and clinical grey of anywhere outside Mexico that hasn't also embraced this unadulterated indulgence. Musically, gaming and TV veteran Daniel Pemberton provides a rather effective score that enhances the semi-surreal atmosphere, merging the traditional Latin romanticism from say, Horner's Zorro scores, with a grungier sound akin to Morricone's western scores with the use of what I assume are electric guitars. 

Getting back to the actual story now, there is actually a lot of smart construction going on here:throughout, the script offers us numerous parallels between the world and our characters, like our contrasting couples serving as echoes, Diaz owning pet cheetahs to mirror her own animalistic nature,in addition to also reflecting her slightly predatory nature, the diamond Fassbender buys and what it says about value, and indeed the running thread of deceptive appearances and the falsehoods that spring from it. If there's one thing McCarthy can't be faulted on, its thematic detail. Plus, contrary to what a number of critics have claimed, the dialogue isn't just endless soliloquies and monologues (save for one scene, but that's for later), and are told more as anecdotes that are relevant to the situation, often as little warnings to the Counselor that he does not heed. Examples include Pitt and Bardem talking about Catrel killing methods when talking over the Counselor's drug deal and what's he getting himself into, or Diaz using her cheetahs to comment on the violent and animal nature of humans to another colleague at the end who also faces a similar choice to the Counselor. While lines like 'truth has no temperature' may not be the most natural, the people who say it are not the grimy Cartel thugs or lower class Mexicans, but people who have money and asense of mock-sophistication, as well as probably on something given their trade, so its not entirely unjustified or inexplicable to have them talk like this. In fact, its often in one-on-one, intimate scenarios, so that can also be factored in. Again, this isn't the bulk of the dialogue, and it only happens maybe four-five times across the film's entire runtime, so don't worry about actors constantly trying to perform lengthy Shakespearean pieces in the middle of, say, a big shootout or party scene, for the sake of awards notice.

And now, the Cons: While McCarthy may be great on themes and parallels, his actual plotting issomething else entirely, and this is probably, in part, what did the film in for most viewers. The narrative is clunky and lacking in details, which is a shock given how much attention he paid to the other elements. These details cover elements that you would think make up the basics: who are these 'associates' that Bardem and Pitt work for? What are their positions relative to them? How many cartels are there, at least, in direct relevance to our story? How much power does Diaz wield? Why, why, why, why, why? In fact, if that's too up in the air (how fitting), then try this for size: Diaz has her goons kill this biker who has the keys to a drug truck. Then, when her guys are driving along, another cartel duo come in and steal it. Okay, so why isn't she concerned that her own stolen truck was stolen by what seems to be another cartel when she seemsset on accumulating the assets of others across the second half? Or how about, also in the second half, The Counselor's world starts to unravel, and Cruz gets taken. There's a scene not long after where Diaz is talking to someone on the phone, but we don't hear the person on the other end. Who is she speaking to? The scene right before has Fassbender appealing to this lawyer/crime boss to give a hand in getting his girl back, so is she talking to him? Was this part of her plan, and how does it benefit her? If not, who is it then? The other cartel? Wouldn't that then make her plan overly complex given what I just mentioned? Because McCarthy doesn't define who is who in relative terms, good luck figuring out who really benefits from what in this film, and who is responsible for what.

And then comes the monologue that I'm all too confident is what upset the critics: so the lawyer says he can't help Fassbender. So far, sad scene, but then comes one of the most overwritten,overlong and bloated monologues ever put to screen. It seems to go on forever, dragging for several minutes as the lawyer rambles about poets and choices and consequences and 'the world you live in' and oh good lord, just move on already! There is no subtlety or grace here, and as if that's not enough,the lawyer repeats the whole 'consequences' bit several times, as if once wasn't enough. It's like listening to the same verse on a CD on loop for at least five minutes. Where the hell is a script editor when you need them? 

Oh, and the extended version? The opening sex scene is a little longer, the scene at the diamond merchant's is extended to add another long monologue about Jews, a phone conversation between Fassbender and Cruz is fully put back together with cutaways to her, and some scenes are a little rearranged. It flows a little better, but it doesn't cure any of the film's problems, and is probably one of the least substantial ‘Expanded’ cuts Scott has put out.

So, mix together an overly ambiguous story that definitely feels like it would be more suited to the printed medium, slow pacing, one of the most overt bits of 'theme-dumping' ever, and of course, Diaz' car-fudging. It really happens, and in all honesty, it seems too surreal and comical for a film this serious and theme heavy. The end result of this weird mixture? A film that isn't awful for lack of trying, but it screams of inexperience. It's no turd, and has a number of aspects to it that are good, but its core narrative is so clumsily handled despite all the attention to detail elsewhere that it leaves me sort of torn as to what to feel, but certainly not boiling hatred. If any of this has you intrigued, I advise rental unless you're a die-hard fan of Scott or McCarthy.

(This article was originally posted on ThirdActFilm.com on

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