THE COUNSELOR (2013, Ridley Scott)
Ridley Scott’s atypically slow and talky thriller is about as dark, morose, and humorless as they come — humorless even though it contains a scene where a punk-haired, peacock-dressed Javier Bardem recounts a story where his girlfriend (played by Cameron Diaz strongly channeling Ellen Barkin circa 1991) humps a car windshield — and most of that is due to Cormac McCarthy, a writer with great acclaim for his prose but whose best work (e.g. BLOOD MERIDIAN) has been considered unfilmable. The Coen Brothers did a number with NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, but the script here works overtime to dominate everything else on screen.
And in that domination, we get scene after scene where characters talk like each other — nobody has an individual voice; they just sound like what McCarthy wants the singular Voice to be. This is the main reason it’s hard to get invested in this story — we’re watching from such a distance because the world and its people are unrealistic. Despite all this, I still found the film sticky as glue. I’m wrestling with it 24 hours later, its ellipses rattling around in my head and nagging at my subconscious. I had a violent dream last night inspired by it, and it was pretty damn unsettling. So I can’t say it isn’t effective, I’m just saying it’s not immersive or easy to bond with. I guess in other words, it’s better than my 6/10 rating, just as CAPTAIN PHILLIPS is worse than my 7/10 rating. Such are the drawbacks of assigning numbers to art. [And as I said leaving the theater, “I’m sure my opinion of this would go up if I watched it again; but I don’t really feel like watching it again.”]
The film is so detailed, though, that I did get taken out of it by things that usually don’t bother me. For example, continuity errors are usually the dumbest things to get annoyed by — as such complaints usually display a lack of understanding of what becomes of actions and things during a film production — but here there’s an absurd example: Fassbender’s watch flips upside down a few times during a particularly emotional phone call. And in another scene,
Barkin Diaz’s character isn’t wearing sunglasses solely because Scott wants us to see her maneating-cougar eyeliner.
McCarthy’s worlds are often similar — death looming, characters tiny ants in a hostile world over which silly humans have so little control — and he makes sure every monologue underscores this nihilistic philosophy. But when that message is delivered at the expense of individuality, it’s so difficult to find things to identify with. The movie becomes a glass sculpture to be reckoned with rather than a fluid story to unpack and live inside. I will say of the two films this fall where Pitt plays a supporting role as a Canadian, this is the far better performance. And Penelope Cruz isn’t on screen nearly often enough — in this film or in movies in general.