**What follows may contain spoilers, although I do try to sidestep them.**
I’ll begin by reiterating something I’m sure that even the most casual reader of this blog has probably already figured out by now, and that is that I am a fan of Michael Fassbender. I have been since the first time I saw the trailer for 300. Yes, yes, he’s gorgeous, but he’s also one of a handful of what I consider to be truly great working actors and I don’t think he’s even at the height of his powers yet. I’ve been waiting for the release of the first “mainstream” movie (it’s at least got the widest initial opening, with more than 3000 screens) in which he gets to be the leading man. I just wish it were a better movie. Sir Ridley Scott’s The Counselor is just not equal to the sum of its parts and taken individually, there are some pretty great parts.
The plot is pretty straightforward, “A lawyer’s one-time dalliance with an illegal business deal spirals out of control.” But the plot is merely a delivery device for some stunning visuals, terrific performances and Sir Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy’s own brand of morality play. The Counselor (no other name given) is repeated given warnings about what the possible consequences of his actions could be and to make damn sure he’s willing to pay the price. Does he heed these warnings? Noooooo. If he did we wouldn’t have a movie would we? That much is evident from the trailer.
We’ll get back to Fassy, but in discussing the four principals, let’s start with Brad Pitt. Now, Mr. Pitt has achieved that level of stardom where we, as moviegoers, rarely ever see him as anything other than Brad Pitt, the ex-Mr. Aniston, the Bra in Brangelina. It’s easy to forget that he’s a very good actor when he’s allowed to be. Here he gets to lose himself in a character. His twangy “Missourah” accent works for Westray, as does the long stringy hair and mustache. The brown contact lenses, not so much. I think they must be part of Pitt’s ongoing attempts to down-play his good looks. Westray is a kind of soothsayer, his major function is to deliver the most overt of the above mentioned warnings.
Penelope Cruz doesn’t have much to do other than be the beautiful object of the Counselor’s love and she does that very well. (She’s called Laura, but might as well be called Beatrice*. Cruz is obviously pregnant, though she’s costumed to camouflage, and she truly is glowing. It must have been nice to have been on set with her husband, Javier Bardem, even if they didn’t share a single scene. Bit of trivia: Angelina Jolie was originally going to play Malkina. That would have made two real-life couples in the movie and neither of them would have shared scenes. It would, however, have made a particular conversation between Pitt and Fassbender a lot more interesting.) The Counselor is completely and desperately in love with Laura, although we don’t know why, other than the hint that she perhaps, represents a lost innocence. The Counselor wants the good life, but he also wants the good girl.
Javier Bardem as Reiner, has received some criticism, that the character is not up to par with his last two villains, the equally coiffure-challenged Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men (for which he won an Academy Award) and Silva in Skyfall. Contrary to popular belief, however, he is not playing another villain (I do however, think his hair is a nod to NCFOM, which was, of course based on a book by The Counselor’s screenwriter Cormac McCarthy.) To Bardem’s credit is the fact that we are never quite sure whether Reiner is on the level, at least in terms of his dealings with the Counselor. It is tacitly understood from the jump that Reiner’s lifestyle is not supported by legitmate means (and we later learn that not all of his means are ill-gotten either. In fact, the Counselor wants to do the drug deal, at least in part, so that he has the cash to open a new club with Reiner.) He’s weird and eccentric, but likeable…as opposed to his girlfriend.
Where this movie took a wrong turn, and then just kept going, was in casting Cameron Diaz. Now I admit I’m not a fan of Ms. Diaz and I’ve been skeptical of her involvement in this movie since her casting was announced. I think she peaked with Something About Mary. Here, she seems to be doing a riff on her Bad Teacher character, except that she’s playing it straight and not for laughs. The hair and makeup and costuming are so on the nose as to be almost laughable. Her name is Malkina. We get it, she’s bad. Did she really have to look like Cruella deVille? (She truly does, just my humble opinion, although instead of wearing Dalmatian pelts, she’s covered in leopard spot tatts and travels around with two cheetahs.) The scene she shares with Cruz serves to point up the latter’s lack of guile and the former’s lack of a moral compass. (This is then hammered home in a bizarre scene involving a confessional. Oh well, at least it had Édgar Ramirez in it.) Malkina is supposed to be evil-incarnate, but it’s a self-centered form of evil that’s donned like a cloak that she believes makes her look sexy and irresistable. It doesn’t. And the profundity of the lines she’s given to recite is all but lost in the community theater-quality delivery.
Michael Fassbender, on the cover of the current issue of GQ is called “The Leading Man Hollywood’s Been Waiting For.” Whether or not this is prescience or a curse remains to be seen, but I will tell you (all fan-gurling aside) that if there is any one reason to see The Counselor, it is Michael Fassbender. It is a performance of rippling highs and lows. He is effortlessly sensual and sexual (and nearly giddy), in his scenes with Penelope Cruz, whether they are rolling around (literally) under the sheets in the opening scene (seriously, that is an Olympic level of explicitly non-explicit hotness. I wanted to hold up a card with a “10” on it) or just casually draped over his impeccable couch in his impeccable lounge pants as he talks to her on the phone. (The smokey growl has always been there, but I swear he lowered his voice an octave for this role. Perhaps it’s the American accent.) Okay, maybe some of that was fan-gurling, but it’s all of the other moments as well that add up to another bold performance.
The Counselor starts out smug and supremely confident in the idea that he can do this deal and get out “clean”; that he can do business with criminals, but not be of them. What we know from conversations between the Counselor and both Westray and Reiner is that this is the biggest illegal activity he’s ever participated in. It may or may not be the first. We’re given clues that could go either way in scenes with Toby Kebbell (using an outrageous southern accent), who is obviously holding a grudge for something that we aren’t privy to and another with the incarcerated Rosie Perez, but he passes off his relationship to her as down to court-appointed pro bono work.
It is obvious from the trappings of his life that he’s been heretofore very successful on his chosen career path, including the Bentley, a gorgeous home, Armani suits, flying to Amsterdam to choose the diamond for his fiancé etc. When it all starts to go to shit, watch closely the scene in which smug turns to desperate. The scales fall from the Counselor’s eyes right in front of our own. We follow as he bounces around against the bumpers that the unseen “they” have set up for him, like a silver pinball, all of his allies, real or imagined peeled off, one way or another, hoping to find his way to avoid going down the chute. His final scene is a culmination of all of that. There are no words, no sounds except for the wretched sounds of a soul descending into Dante’s 9th circle**.
I have read in several places that The Counselor felt more like a Tony Scott film, rather than any earlier work of Sir Ridley’s. I have to wonder if that wasn’t the point, that it aspired to be more like a Tony Scott film. Tony is not listed among the producers but the two were partners in Scott Free Productions. They always had hands in each other’s pies. (Production on The Counselor was suspended for a week following Tony Scott’s suicide in August 2012. Perhaps the elder Scott turned it into a tribute to his brother. It is dedicated to him.) While it doesn’t have Tony’s frenetic camera style, and Sir Ridley doesn’t have the same feel for “pulp” that his brother did, it does use his color palette. (More than one scene reminded me of one of Tony’s last films, Domino.) It is a visual feast, from Reiner’s colorful outfits to Malkina’s tatts to the heat-bleached desert vistas, dirty junkyards and desolate Mexican towns, juxtaposed with the cool blue of London streets. Credit cinematographer Dariusz Wolski for that as much as for the literally in-your-face photography that catches the glint of tears in the Counselor’s eyes, the malice in Malkina’s and the fear in nearly everyone else’s.
The younger Scott was also much more familiar with the geography of The Counselor than his older brother. Of course that’s well-trod territory for the screenwriter, Cormac McCarthy. The dialogue is much more McCarthy than Tony Scott, that’s for certain. The writer of No Country for Old Men’s first original screenplay could probably have benefitted from the Coen Brothers lighter touch, but that said, what did critics and film goers who take issue with the wordy script expect? McCarthy has often been referred to as the “philosopher poet of the American Southwest” and his script is both philosophical and, at times, wonderfully poetic. Some of the speeches put into the mouths of even minor characters, are beautiful. Ruben Bladés sole purpose in the film is to deliver a prosaic treatise on the meaning of life while Fassbender listens on a cellphone, at last realizing with finality that his is over. It’s also possible that scripts are not his forte. As brilliant a writer as he is, as highly praised as his novels are, the only other script he’s responsible for is the HBO adaptation of his own play, “The Sunset Limited” (which I always get confused with the novel by James Lee Burke), and which also left critics divided.
Whatever it was that director Scott wanted, I don’t think he got it, despite the fact that it was edited by Sir Ridley’s long-time collaborator Pietro Scalia, I have to wonder, as I often do, whether or not there’s another, better movie laying about on the cutting room floor (Actually nothing makes me more sure of that than this. Even if it was never meant to go into the finished film, the fact that it exists makes me think that someone else believed that it fit. WHERE?). All of the great snapshots that comprise this movie are still all jumbled up in the box under the bed. I had the feeling that The Counselor aspired to be a sort of sun-washed neo-noir with a Tex-Mex flavor. Instead it’s more like a classical Greek tragedy. While it may be true that not everyone is dead at the end, there is certainly no hope left.
What do you think? Did I get it wrong? Feel free to leave me a note below and let’s discuss.
*from Dante’s Inferno: Beatrice Portinari was once Dante’s fiance and true love who was killed by a Kurdish survivor from Acre out of revenge.
** also from The Inferno: the 9th circle of hell represents Treachery, in which betrayers of special relationships are frozen in a lake of ice. Inhabitants include Satan and Judas