Ridley Scott’s “The Counselor” (2013)

The runaway success of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007), Joel and Ethan Coen’s Oscar-winning adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s pitch-black western-noir novel, kicked off a frenzy to bring the rest of the author’s library to the screen.  Known throughout the literary community for his gripping, terse writing style, McCarthy was the author of several books ripe for translation to cinema screens. The subject of one such effort was his 1985 novel, BLOOD MERIDIAN, which many filmmakers have tried to tackle over the ensuing years to little effect.  Director Sir Ridley Scott had spearheaded one such effort for a time, and while he too was unable to get the movie made, he did manage to establish a personal friendship with McCarthy (1).  This gave him an inside track as to McCarthy’s burgeoning interest in the screenplay format, which eventually took the form of a spec titled THE COUNSELOR.  When said script was purchased in early 2012 by Nick Wechsler and Steve & Paula Mae Schwartz, the producing team behind John Hillcoat’s adaptation of McCarthy’s THE ROAD (2009), Scott quickly angled his way into the proceedings even as he was putting the finishing touches on his ambitious ALIEN prequel, PROMETHEUS.  While most filmmakers would long for a well-earned vacation following such an exhausting and intense shoot, Scott’s idea of “unwinding” was to embark on a down-and-dirty $25 million thriller about the viciousness and inhumanity of Mexican drug cartels.  The final product bears out Scott’s appropriateness for the job, allowing THE COUNSELOR to flaunt its vividly eccentric style as it takes a long walk on the wild side.

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Despite a globe-hopping narrative that charts unfolding action in locales like Amsterdam, Chicago, and London, THE COUNSELOR’s story chiefly concerns the tenuous border between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.  Michael Fassbender, fresh off his first collaboration with Scott as a buttoned-up android in PROMETHEUS, gets a chance to let his hair down somewhat as the eponymous Counselor, a well-compensated lawyer for the cartels who has decided it’s time to get in some of the action for himself.  As a protagonist, Counselor is not particularly interesting or distinctive, but Fassbender’s easy charisma nevertheless makes the character eminently watchable. A closet of sleek designer suits and a velvety Texan accent convey an image of untroubled sophistication, but Fassbender’s clean-cut facade can’t hide the roiling inner conflict within.  For all his confidence, expertise, and material success, Counselor is by no means equipped for the physical and emotional fallout of his choices. Neither is his fiancé, Laura, played by Penelope Cruz with a sweet innocence that THE COUNSELOR’s other characters would find entirely foreign.  A relatively uncomplicated woman driven by love and faith, she is the proverbial (and literal) lamb drawn to the slaughter; the collateral damage wrought by Counselor’s ambition and avarice.  

Javier Bardem, no stranger to McCarthy’s idiosyncratic characterization thanks to his role in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, draws inspiration from Imagine Entertainment producer Brian Grazer (electrified hair-do and all) as Reiner, a louch club owner with a flamboyant sense of style.  Constantly babbling about his preoccupations while he drapes himself in loud colors, he is perhaps the ultimate peacock— intent on stealing 100% of the room’s undivided attention.  Naturally, he could never conceive of the idea that Cameron’s Diaz’s Malkina is the real scene-stealer.  Ostensibly, she is Reiner’s girlfriend, but her actions throughout THE COUNSELOR prove that she’s nobody’s girl but her own.  Diaz clearly relishes the opportunity to depart significantly from the warm and flirty roles she usually plays; indeed, she thrives under the direction of Scott and his artistic sympathies for the opposite sex.  Her Malkina is cool, aloof, and even a bit of a nihilistic nymphomaniac (as evidenced in a scene where Reiner watches slackjawed while she has sex with the windshield of his Ferrari). If her cheetah tattoos weren’t enough to telegraph her elegant deadliness, then surely a pair of actual pet cheetahs who accompany her everywhere would do the trick.  These stoic, perfectly-trained feline sentinels reinforce Malkina’s fierce characterization— patient, calculating, and always in total command of the situation while letting others merely think they’re pulling the strings.  An eclectic ensemble cast finds themselves caught up in THE COUNSELOR’s nebulous criminal vortex, comprised of unexpected faces like Edgar Ramirez as a flustered priest taking Malkina’s psychopathic confession, Rosie Perez as an inmate and one of Counselor’s clients, John Leguizamo as a mechanic who moonlights as a drug-runner, and Natalie Dormer as a honey trap that Malkina lays for Brad Pitt’s Westray.  Returning to Scott’s fold for the first time since his breakout performance in THELMA & LOUISE (1991), Pitt revels in his role as a sleazy con cowboy, complete with stringy long hair and a rakish smirk.  He may present himself as a peripheral character, but he’s actually staked himself out a spot at the center of the proceedings— a position he’ll swiftly come to regret when he finds himself on the business end of one of the more gruesomely sadistic killing devices ever imagined.

THE COUNSELOR continues Scott’s newfound romance with digital cinematography, having been acquired on a fleet of no less than six Red Epic cameras shooting simultaneously.  PROMETHEUS’ Dariusz Wolski returns as cinematographer, veering away from the cold sterility of that film’s aesthetic in favor of a high-contrast, sunbaked patina.  The 2.40:1 frame is rendered with seared colors— blazing orange exteriors complement interiors that alternate between a cold blue cast and a sickly green/yellow acid wash.  The glossy, grain-free sheen of digital gives THE COUNSELOR a mechanical sleekness to its image, almost as if it were a car commercial masquerading as a theatrical film.  Aerials, zooms, and handheld camerawork punctuate these slick contours with a muscular aggression, further echoing the film’s tonal balance between its characters’ cultural sophistication and their inner beasts.  Scott’s signature atmospherics give the relative flatness of digital some much-needed dimension, boosting THE COUNSELOR’s punchy theatricality with silhouettes, smoke, sparks, and even billowing bedsheets.  Longtime production designer Arthur Max pulls double duty here, making a fleeting cameo in front of the camera while infusing the film’s various locales with a distinct Euro-sleaze— likely a byproduct of the film’s shooting entirely in Europe.  Indeed, many people (myself included) would be surprised to find that principal photography for THE COUNSELOR never even set foot in the United States; England stands in Amsterdam, London, Chicago, and various interiors, while the dramatic Southwestern vistas were instead lensed in Spain; much like Sergio Leone did with his iconic spaghetti westerns in the 1960’s.  Freed from the baggage of high-profile American locations, Scott and Max empower themselves to build THE COUNSELOR’s razor-edged world from scratch.  This blank geographic canvas affords them total control, almost like a giant studio backlot, resulting in a gritty backdrop that reads as both familiar and yet, entirely foreign.  This extends to Scott’s curated selection of architecturally-striking locations and urban environments. Reiner’s ultra-modern mansion comes to mind, as does a seedy back alley in Ciudad Juarez, where Scott’s staging of a protest by townspeople against murderous cartels (while armed police silently look on) paints a broader picture of this world with nuanced detail.  

McCarthy’s prose no doubt fuels what is a murky, complex, and ultimately nihilistic blend of western and noir conventions, but THE COUNSELOR’s bleak outlook can also be attributed to Scott’s state of mind after the sudden loss of his beloved brother, Tony.  The film was in the middle of production in August 2012 when he learned that Tony had committed suicide by jumping off the Vincent Thomas Bridge in San Pedro.  He immediately shut down the shoot so he could be with family in LA (1), but ever true to form, he was back in London the following week to finish what he started.  For whatever reason, THE COUNSELOR would spend an inordinate amount of time in post— enough time that Scott was able to go off and shoot a television pilot for Showtime called THE VATICAN.  The project — which starred Kyle Chandler as a cardinal exploring the corruption that snaked throughout the eponymous headquarters of the Catholic Church — would have marked Scott’s very first foray into episodic television, had it not been unceremoniously canceled before it could even air.  Scott’s streak of bad news spilled over into THE COUNSELOR’s theatrical release in October 2013, where a modest $71 million take could not counteract a barrage of poor critical reviews that dunked on nearly everything save for Scott’s technical execution and the performances of his cast.  That said, a handful of high-profile and well-respected critics like Richard Roeper and Manohla Dargis turned in rave reviews, which would suggest that THE COUNSELOR was not objectively bad as much as it was merely misunderstood (2)(3).  The release of an Extended Unrated Cut on home video did nothing to clarify the film’s obtuse storytelling, managing to add 20-30 minutes of runtime but nothing in the way of substance (beyond a gorier death scene for Pitt’s character).  Indeed, either cut of THE COUNSELOR doesn’t exactly make for the most pleasant viewing experience, but each revisit to its dusty, blackhearted world yields new insights.  It’s the cinematic equivalent of an onion — densely layered; bitter-tasting; likely to make some of us cry when we cut into it. But throw it in a pan with some other ingredients and turn up the heat, and it assumes a rich, savory complexity that transforms the entire dish.  Salivating metaphors aside, THE COUNSELOR carves out a razor-sharp figure for itself in Scott’s larger filmography.  It’s a brazenly-confident work that refuses to apologize for its flaws, possessing an animal magnetism that will continue to draw (and reward) the morbidly curious for years to come.

THE COUNSELOR is currently available on high-definition Blu Ray via Twentieth Century Fox.

Credits:

Written by: Cormac McCarthy

Produced by:

Director of Photography: Dariusz Wolski

Production Designer: Arthur Max

Edited by: Pietro Scalia

Music by: Daniel Pemberton

References

  • IMDB Trivia Page