By Ramia Adaeze & Alec Julian
Imagine a film filled with muted conversations between respected colleagues. Tête-à-têtes espouse a literary voice, touching on philosophies of life, death and love. A femme fatale says “The truth has no temperature” and you think it clever. Sensual, moody and tense, a film where nothing really happens. The narrative drive is off-screen, misty and unuttered. When there is a plot, you find a drug addled culture indifferent to our unnamed protagonist’s plight. You leave the theater questioning the morality of your own world, suspecting that perhaps, just like the eponymous Counselor, you too possess no one that would die for you. You are disquieted. This is the novel that Cormac McCarthy thought was a screenplay. The film I assume he intended to make. Instead “The Counselor” features a miscast Cameron Diaz grinding on the windshield of a Ferrari for no justifiable reason. Otherwise, I almost fell asleep. I don’t fall asleep in movies.
I fall asleep in most movies, but I was not moved to slumber here. When something this flagrantly soporific – wearing its foreshadowing like exposition – keeps me engaged, it’s certainly doing something riveting. And the story is beside the point.
The story follows a cipher with a law degree referred to solely as “The Counselor” (Michael Fassbender). Partnered up with sybaritic club owner Reiner (Javier Bardem) and a non-empathetic middle-man Westray (Brad Pitt), our empty leading man gets caught up in a drug deal that goes bad. Bardem’s love interest, and antagonist by default, outlandish whore Malkina (Carmen Diaz), works against our anti-heroes, a villain without a motive. Fassbender’s monotonous Madonna, Laura (Penelope Cruz), on the other hand, stays in the background, a body without an agenda. It is worth mentioning that both female characters are essentially sexist caricature. We are basically told Cameron Diaz is the devil because she engages in her sexuality and Penelope Cruz, a saint, because she bashfully deters from hers.
There’s nothing obscure about the motive, actually. It’s money, it’s always money. Whereas the men in this movie are less driven by pecuniary avarice than by the wanton desire to please women for whom they lust, the Antagonist nymph desires financial domination. The smoking gun, if you want one, is Javier Bardem’s cheetah, the huntress who preys on the less powerful because it’s the moral thing to do.
You don’t think there is a little obscurity with Malkina? Sure, like the men, she is driven by Mammon, but the movie offers no motivation for her betrayal. Even an ice-cold vixen seeking “financial domination,” as you put it, must realize the risks involved in drug trafficking. They put in enough care to demonstrate she is a prudent thinker but she threatens her already opulent lifestyle for what? Power? Independence? Revenge?
Well enough, McCarthy’s verbose, yet minimal, screenplay holds up “The Counselor,” which straddles the border of Tarantino’s erudition and disengaged obliqueness. Admittedly, the weight of McCarthy’s reputation begets the benefit of the doubt. What may be discursive by some accounts comes off complex with his name behind it.
Cormac McCarthy’s first original screenplay suffers from not being an adaptation, but for being solely the work of his name and talent. The high art minimalism that McCarthy utilizes in his “prose” and “characters” is uninteresting, sans punch. We can forgive a film for being muted but not boring, not incomprehensible. More likely, McCarthy does not understand the constraints of writing for cinema vs. a novel. A literary novel (still considered a higher art form than cinema) is more easily forgiven for windbaggery. A novel requires an investment of time and imagination that is not found in cinema. But in a movie, sometimes, you do have to fill in the blanks, defer to formula. There is less space and time to imagine.
Narrative is mostly replaced with dialogue that never ends and never truly informs. Forced signposts clue you into some of the activity (talks of decapitation machines and snuff films are Chekhov’s guns) but trying to understand why or what is happening is futile. We are given too much superfluous information to possibly retain and too little pertinent material to elucidate. It is filled to the brim with pseudo-intellectual musings that not only are extraneous to the plot and characterization but also not noteworthy per se.
Maybe because you were expecting a charismatic potboiler with predictable, clever twists, you got confused when the movie didn’t fit the bill. Suffice to say, as by the numbers as “The Counselor” plays out to be, McCarthy isn’t piecing together Robert McKee Lego bricks to make a “story.” The deft dialogue oozes with gumption – just the not the kind that translates well into structural synergy. Inasmuch as the film’s villains “don’t believe in coincidence,” McCarthy does, mystifying the narrative with shadows of a backstory, flooding it with minimally constructed characters, who function as unpredictable gears in new unfolding “worlds,” or to just to say something out-of-turn. The black, unsettling moral arbitrariness of the Coen Brothers’ “No Country for Old Men” hangs over the film, just without that film’s patented suspense.
Even if the wit cohered, it is still packaged in poorly edited, unguided, meandering scenes (Ridley Scott) and flatly delivered by noted talent (Fassbender, Pitt, Bardem, Cruz, save Diaz) that have already cashed their checks in and tuned out. The most engaging actor of the critical and commercial flop is Cameron Diaz but only because her garishly dressed, poorly executed, campy performance is at odds with rest of the film. With all the critically acclaimed people involved (save Diaz) you would think someone would have mentioned that this thriller contains few thrills. Thus when the music finally cues for suspense, the picture delivers none.
Ramia Adaeze is a feminist, who tweets @
Alec Julian is a Los Angeles based writer, who (fake) tweets.