(TODAY'S GUEST: Rohan Morbey, who blogs at Stop Thinking For Yourself UK, returns to share his thoughts on the much-maligned The Counselor, directed by Ridley Scott from the first original screenplay by author Cormac McCarthy. We're always happy to welcome Rohan back to Jaman HQ, and hope you will follow him on Twitter.)
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 to, 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 along, 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; 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 doesn't help the viewer decipher 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 aspects 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 becomes apparent that the 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 with a production this size, it can often be detrimental.
It isn’t 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 his movies have always had an identity. 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.