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New film: The Counselor – two (conflicting) opinions

The Counselor
Directed by Ridley Scott

Two (quite different) opinions by Malcolm Maclachlan and Tony Sheppard

MM: Here’s how I would summarize this film—not plot-wise, but in terms of redeeming value: None. It fails to justify its brutality in terms of artistic, philosophical or even entertainment value. And it talks down to its audience about the harshness of reality while delivering an absurd plot taken straight from an episode of “Miami Vice.” The second half of this sadistic turkey marks the moment I officially lost interest in Cormac McCarthy and his one-trick nihilism pony.

TS: Malcolm is obviously not a fan of this film – but, at the same time, critic Richard Roeper is on record giving it an A+ and drooling over every detail. And that pretty much captures this film’s essence – it’s polarizing. It will polarize audiences and sometimes even a single viewer, such as me: There are aspects of this film I liked and others I disliked, equally intensely. This could result in some of the most contentious dinner conversations of the year.

MM: The obvious parallel here is the 2007 Coen brothers movie “No Country for Old Men,” also based on a Cormac McCarthy novel. This was arguably a more brutal film, but it also had a lot more going for it. Better source material, more interesting characters. Michael Fassbender (whom I normally love, but not here) plays the unnamed “Counselor.” He has many parallels with Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn Moss from “No Country.” Both foolishly risk everything trying to get rich on the edge of criminal worlds whose capacity for violence they don’t comprehend. But Moss is a country boy in 1982, not a modern, already-wealthy criminal defense attorney who ought to know better. Even though Moss screws up repeatedly, at least he’s a fighter who goes down swinging.

TS: That’s an interesting comparison, and not least for the presence of Javier Bardem with almost equally outrageous hairstyles in both films. I’m not as big a fan of “No Country for Old Men” as many people seem to be, but what that film manages to do that “The Counselor” fails to do, is provide a hero – somebody the audience can actually root for. The settings are actually quite similar and, to some extent “No Country…” could almost have been an act or a spinoff of a longer running version of “The Counselor” – both exist in the world of international drug smuggling and both are based on deals that have gone off the rails to the point that consequences occur. But where “No Country…” has elements of a morality play, “The Counselor” is more of an amorality play. It’s not about moral people making choices between morality and immorality, it’s about immoral people encountering amoral people and simply finding themselves woefully out of their depth, where the depths being measured are the depths of depravity.

MM: Not to put too fine a point on it, the Counselor is a whiny idiot who mainly seemed to be angling for the audience’s pity. All he got from me was disdain. I also found myself wondering what the Coen brothers would have done with this material. While they can be really mean spirited, they would also have added a little more humor. Though ultimately it wouldn’t help.

TS: And this is part of my problem with the film – the slick, successful lawyer we’re given as our central character isn’t actually likeable. But he’s there for a reason – it’s another film with an audience proxy. He’s our stand-in – he’s there to show us that even the most successful, smooth, Bentley-driving guy, in what can be one of the most cynically viewed professions (he’s the kind of lawyer who has friends who are drug dealers after all), simply can’t fathom the depths of the amorality he’s associating with. But, that said, this isn’t a film without humor – there are conversations here that are laugh out loud funny, between fantastic actors who are obviously relishing delivering them. It’s a great cast doing, at times, great work – I probably liked Penélope Cruz here as much as in anything she’s done – and she and Fassbender, Bardem, Cameron Diaz, and Brad Pitt all have great moments on screen. Cruz’s character is really the only innocent, but the film doesn’t really allow you a chance to do anything other than pity her.

MM: Remember that old Chekov line about how if you hang a gun on the wall in Act 1, someone needs to fire it by the final act? Here’s what gets put on the wall in Act 1: garrotes with electric motors, decapitation and snuff films. Which is not to say that there couldn’t be a good film made with these elements. Rather, that it had better be a very, very good film.

TS: This is probably my primary other beef with the film – it’s a story with many good elements, some of which are told very well, but which seems to have been assembled poorly. And Malcolm’s correct in pointing out multiple moments when you realize you’re now waiting for what has been described to occur and simply left wondering who it might occur to – until it becomes obvious and any surprise is lost.

MM: What do we get here? The action is broken up by people making speeches about the meaninglessness and brevity of life, of how the time for choices is long past and this is the time for acceptance. These statements did seem relevant to my poor decision of being in the theater at the time, but they also sounded like the kind of pretentious BS many of us wrote in college. The kind of stuff we couldn’t get published, but McCarthy can. I kept finding myself thinking of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, a horrifically violent book which at least had some interesting things to say about colonialism and genocide. Here, it just felt like he was throwing stuff at the wall to see if any of it stuck.

TS: Some of that content worked for me although, for the most part, not while it was being said. But there’s an interesting dynamic here that goes back to what I’ve been saying about the depths of amorality. Fassbender’s character is repeatedly lectured by those who know he doesn’t have a clue about just how bad a world he’s eagerly rushing into – but the people doing the lecturing are not as clued in as they think they are. It’s like looking into a deep well and thinking you can see the bottom when you’re just glimpsing the edge of a ledge part-way down.

This is a film with some of the most graphically portrayed and/or described sex scenes in recent memory, and some of the most graphic violence seen on film – and it will likely prompt many walkouts from people who aren’t ready for one or both. However, many of these same scenes are exceptionally well made and shot – the cinematography overall is quite beautiful, supporting great acting and snippets of perfect dialog. It’s not a film I’d want to watch again, but there are scenes that are probably worth studying for students of film. It’s also a film that helps make a mockery of the ratings system, with “The Counselor” carrying the same rating as this year’s “The Kings of Summer” which happened to have a few scenes of fifteen year-olds drinking. But one doesn’t typically compare “Glee” with Dante’s Inferno just because both contain adult themes.

MM: It’s not that “The Counselor” didn’t occasionally try to be relevant, just that it failed. We hear how the drug war is the source of all this violence, briefly see a protest in Mexico of the families of the disappeared. But, like everything else this hateful piece of crap has to say, we already knew that.

TS: I also think it failed, not because the content isn’t there, but because of poor delivery. I think most people think of “bad” people doing bad things for personal gain, despite their badness. What “The Counselor” seems to be attempting to remind us is that there are people, and entire industries, where “badness” in that sense isn’t even a consideration – it doesn’t even enter the frame of reference. That’s an ugly lesson – and drug smuggling here could be replaced, for example,- by human trafficking, trading in “blood diamonds,” or weapons running. I think Malcolm is right that many of us have some concept of the carnage and loss that result from many of these things – however intellectually sterile or insulated our often distanced perceptions may be. But I don’t think many of us have a grip on the nature of the people behind that violence – or the ease with which that violence is perpetrated. And that’s the lesson the counselor is supposed to be learning in “The Counselor” – it’s just that the film makes it hard to care about either him or his education, despite the momentary flashes of brilliance in the filmmaking.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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