Sunday, 10 November 2013

Film Review: The Counselor (2013)

Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: Cormac McCarthy
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt

There are no hard and fast rules to making a successful movie, but one thing is needed above all else; talent. The Counselor has talent in abundance in front of the screen, behind the camera, and pretty much anywhere else you may look for it. So why, then, is this film so close yet so very far away from greatness?

If ever a film was a dichotomy of success and failure, then The Counselor is that film. The much anticipated first screenplay from Pulitzer Prize winning author Cormac McCarthy is fascinating to listen to, yet makes precious little sense when spoken by his characters. The individual performances are all perfectly fine, but as an ensemble the range is so vast that none seem true to the world of the film. On one hand we have Michael Fassbender’s unnamed Counselor who for a lead character is bland and uninteresting, but Fassbender brings a human element to this purposely underwritten man; on the other end of the scale is Cameron Diaz as the ruthless Malkina who keeps Cheetahs as pets and has animal spots tattooed on her back, and at one point straddles a Ferrari windshield, sans underwear, until she climaxes. The two extremes don’t fit in the same world, but one or the other would be fine.

McCarthy’s screenplay is stripped bare of exposition and of a narrative force pulling the film alone, but one can’t help appreciate the philosophical speeches which punctuate the film, even if they are spelling out the overarching theme of the film over and over again; bad things happen to people who do bad things. There is no happy ending in McCarthy’s world and I respect that, but what is the reward for the audience when every character is seemingly missing their core? Brad Pitt’s character talks like Javier Bardem’s character, who talks like a random bartender in Mexico (in one of the film’s most unforgivable dialogue exchanges) which gives the viewer little in the way of deciphering what is important dialogue and what is just ‘talk’. Who are we supposed to like, and who are we supposed to dislike? Perhaps none, but why are we still watching?

Compare the dialogue in this film to that of David Mamet or even Quentin Tarantino. The dialogue they write can be just as ‘unrealistic’ compared to how people actually talk, but in the world of their story, it is exactly the way people talk. In The Counselor, McCarthy struggles to create his world for these two hours, and it shows nearly every time two characters have a conversation.

Anyone who wants all aspect of a movie to fit like a jigsaw should stay clear of The Counselor for several scenes are missing where you’d expect them in any other film of this genre. This was fine for me whilst watching the first hour, but it become apparent that missing information will never surface and it is up to the viewer to plug the gaps. Again, this style of narrative may read beautifully on paper, but through the medium of film, and one with this production size, it can often be detrimental to the film. So many times I asked myself the ‘how’ ‘why’ and ‘who’ of the plot, yet the plot is incredibly simplistic and offers nothing new other than how it is offered to us.

It isn’t the effectiveness of the screenplay which disappointed me the most, but it was in the complete lack of identity in the look and style of the film. As a huge admirer of Ridley Scott’s work, for good or bad (of which he has served up his fair share), I can’t recall a film of his looking so completely without character or personality as this. Yes, the film has nice production values, and yes, it certainly looks good, but Scott has always been beyond just ‘looking good’ and he has always had an identity to his movies. The Counselor has its moments, notably the first scene under the bed covers or the setting up of the wire running across the road, and there are a few compelling scenes of extreme violence which are foreboded from the start, but it sadly ranks as one of Scott’s most visually lifeless films in his 35+ years of film making.

Stop thinking for yourself verdict: The reason why the film is a marginal recommendation, despite the criticisms described above, is because those failings kept me strangely engrossed. I wanted to understand the meaning of the words, and the motivations of the characters, and the reasons why Ridley Scott and his cast decided to make this film. Perhaps no one knew what they were getting themselves into, or perhaps this is exactly as it was supposed to turn out; either way The Counselor is one of 2013’s most interesting films.

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