I loved this movie. You might. They didn't. You know who I mean.
Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Cormac McCarthy
With Michael Fassbender (The Counselor), Cameron Diaz (Malkina), Javier Bardem (Reiner), Brad Pitt (Westray), Penelope Cruz (Laura), and Ruben Blades (Jefe)
No one has a background in the hard sciences in The Counselor. As a result, the story it tells is necessarily a grim one.
In this and in so many other respects, The Counselor is not Breaking Bad: The Movie With Movie Stars.1 If you expected that, you may be severely tested by what The Counselor actually is. In the end, I think that is the worst thing that can be said about it. Clearly, it is not the worst thing that has been said about it, as really, really, really bad things have been said about it. And how.
Thus, for at least the fourth time so far in 2013, one of the year's best films is marginalized, and The Counselor is, depressingly, fated to become a fixture of many of the Year's Worst features to come in January. These lists will, by and large, somehow fail to include Star Trek Into Darkness, 2 Guns, and The Grandmaster, hateful films that hated their viewers and themselves, and all technically fresh pieces of shit that made money. So it goes.
That's dismissive of the critical community, and audiences, which is to say the majority of people in the Western world (and the People's Republic of China). And it's unfair. Though my usual response is to call those who disagree with me wrong and/or stupid, in regards The Counselor I cannot, in justice, do so. (In fact, Andrew O'Hehir's review linked above is great writing and recommended reading.)
Like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Videodrome, or Speed Racer, The Counselor really is a movie that wasn't made for everybody. Indeed, The Counselor is a movie that was not clearly made for anybody at all.
That it happens to appear to be tailor made for me is, I am sure, a very happy accident, a result of its bizarre union of a pompously pulpy auteur, a philosophically bent author, and gloriously game actors who have just given some of the best performances of their lives yet now appear faintly embarrassed by the effort. But, instead of complaining about how people Just Don't Get It, I will take solace instead in the real possibility that the home video, when it arrives, will be cheaper.
Some of us are on a budget.
The Counselor stars Michael Fassbender as a lawyer, referred to only as, well, [the] Counselor. It may in fact be his Christian name, given that laypeople almost never use the title and actual lawyers and judges tend to use it as an ironic counterpoint to unprofessional behavior, such as the repeated utterance of frivolous objections, the repeated failure to wear pants, or, as in The Counselor, the repeated refusal to exit a multimillion dollar drug deal, probably funded out of a client IOLTA account.
"Is it even conceivable that you're accusing me, a Michael Fassbender character, of lacking ethics?"
The off-putting conceit is deployed, I suppose, to place him in the tradition of Men With No Names, ala Harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West, the Thirty Year Old Mulberry Field and/or Camellia in Yojimbo and Sanjuro, or Joe in A Fistful of—hey, wait a minute...
The most memorable recent example is Drive's Driver; but you'll note that conversations with the Driver were deliberately written so that clauses were not routinely set off by the word "Driver," which none of his friends would have called him, and which would have been distracting and cumbersome. And so, now that we see such a thing occur, it more than occasionally is.
He also has a friend in Mexico named Abogado. Yes! Really.
This finicky problem, this nit, is the only annoyance I have with the conversations in The Counselor. This is, emphatically, the minority position on this film.
Yes, almost every line is delivered as either monologue or Socratic dialogue, and each of the other principals in the distant drug deal that incites the action in the film carries with them an invisible soapbox, from which they promulgate their personal world views while unsubtly suggesting that the Counselor's own is incomplete.
The putative grand truths enunciated in The Counselor range from the juvenile to the questionable to the dangerous to the obtuse to the heartbreakingly unassailable. You may judge for yourself which are which. Or not, as while The Counselor is a great movie, it is, like I said, not one I wholeheartedly recommend. But its central points—on the nature of consequence (all actions have them), the possibility of redemption (it usually isn't), the meaning of suffering (none), and the meaning of life (see "meaning of suffering")—I think could well be counted as axiomatic.
For many, this might well be boring. Personally, I could never find dull Cormac McCarthy's quasi-poetic verbiage, delivered with such verve by two of our new 21st century super-actors alongside three transcending veterans. Nonetheless, for most critics, let alone just folks, it was not something they wanted to see. The Counselor's screenplay certainly takes an unorthodox approach—and, let's be clear, an awfully uncommercial one—to what is, essentially, a pretty sweet noir.
Imagine the gabbier parts of The Maltese Falcon, like when the fat man enthuses over the history of the Templars or when Sam Spade suggests he's not as amoral as we've been led to believe. Well, it's like that for practically the whole movie, except every character is more selfish than they are smart, morality is a total illusion, sepulchral doom hangs over every sentence, the gunsels aren't an inept bunch of Elisha Cook Juniors and never even directly interact with the Counselor, and Peter Lorre spends five minutes telling Humphrey Bogart about the time that Mary Astor put it on the glass and fucked his car.
This Cormac McCarthy movie is not wholly devoid of levity.
I very much like this sort of thing, so for me The Counselor was an entirely entertaining and totally engrossing experience.
It may help understand my position to know that three of my favorite films are Things To Come (the greatest production design pornography of its time and a socialist propaganda extravaganza for all ages, based on the least novelistic novel ever written, The Shape of Things to Come), Mindwalk (a semi-obscure, talky curio based on the also semi-obscure, talky novel The Turning Point), and Waking Life (Richard Linklater's brilliant animated anthology about a man who dies and has to listen to a series of interestingly pretentious assholes for ninety minutes of subjective time before his brain shuts down). In each movie, characters exist only in archetype at most, and plot is secondary to declarations of principle, politics, and philosophy.
The Counselor can be compared profitably to Things To Come in another way as well: that too was a film whose shape was determined by the wisdom and whims of its screenwriter, also its nation of origin's contemporary man of letters, H.G. Wells. Full disclosure, I have never read a Cormac McCarthy book, but my understanding is that he's also, if in a different vein than later Wells, not big on things like "narrative" and "positive depictions of society as it is currently ordered."
To this short list of movies in the People Talk About Shit genre, I'll add two films that I sort of enjoyed but found problematic in vastly different ways, Cosmopolis and, somewhat more iffily (prepare to jettison credibility!) The Seventh Seal.
Cosmopolis, as you know if you've seen it, just shits itself in the third act, and whether you like the wave of offal to follow frankly says a lot about your character—and if you did like Cosmopolis and did not like The Counselor, you have got no right, because in many ways The Counselor is Cosmopolis with crime standing in for capitalism (a difficult to parse metaphor, surely), and, more importantly, done better in every single way.
The Seventh Seal is an actual good movie, but features an annoying family enjoying their annoying idyllic happiness, and it might really be better off without them because they interfere with all the interesting parts that involve the Plague, witch burning, would-be rapists, and Emperor Ming and William Sadler grimly talking about theology in well-framed shots.
I'm kidding, a little, but in any event I recall it being rather philosophical, and although admittedly it's a bit less motor-mouthed than The Counselor, and certainly less obviously the result of dextroamphetamine use, it's surely at least as insistent with lines like "Why can't I kill God in me?"
"And why does no one ever like the movies I like?"
So that this, in The Counselor, is a major sticking point with critics in particular is passing strange. Some of the movies I've mentioned are considered classics, some of them aren't, some of them damned well should be (stay tuned), and as far as I can tell eleven of the twelve people to randomly review Mindwalk ten to fifteen years after it came out seemed to enjoy it. What permits unalloyed praise for asking grandiose questions about God, a lukewarm reception to grandiose questions about Airpower, and derision for the powerful question posed to the Counselor, that ends his story? Perhaps it is merely a matter of taste, and there's no accounting for that.
The movie is not at all so dry as I may be implying. And that's not (just) a human squeegee joke; aside from the indelible car-fucking scene, the ongoing interrogation of the Counselor's inadequate moral and substantive knowledge is punctuated by some of the year's most radical ultraviolence.
For this, we could thank McCarthy, who is no stranger to the subject, but I suspect that the pace at which The Counselor's excellent kills are doled out can be more likely attributed to the thoughtfulness of one Mr. Ridley Scott. After Prometheus, it's a treat to witness Scott totally redeem himself with a beautifully designed and shot film, full of great violence of the rock-hard R variety, that is also actually good. It all leads ultimately to the best murder of the year—including Evil Dead, You're Next, and Man of Steel—a death that could only have been better if the foley artist had gone outside and dropped a coconut a few inches from the curb to the street.
Death in The Counselor is foreshadowed with bluntness and with great metaphorical flourish—the better to pursue its themes, of course. But, best of all, you will not be disappointed that they put an automatic decapitation machine on the mantle in the first act and did not have it actually decapitate someone in the last.
The Counselor is also extraordinarily well-performed, or performed extraordinarily toward my tastes, which is to say broad with nuance, involving periods of intense sullenness set against bouts of well-spoken mania, and topped off with hardcore emotionalism. It's a real achievement for everyone involved, given the difficulty of the dialogue. And in his final scene, Fassbender puts more acting into a pause than most put into whole careers, and his answer to the ultimate question is as terrifyingly real as his interrogation is artificial.
Compared to the violence and the declamation, the events that compose the film's somewhat obtuse narrative are frankly tertiary, and only vaguely explained. It is the plot, not the profundity, both faux and genuine, which is the digression here.
In sum, however, the Counselor is a somewhat high-flying criminal lawyer with a lavish lifestyle that he obviously cannot afford, particularly in regards to his bride-to-be, Laura, and the giant piece of glass he buys her. They love each other. Well, that's a bummer.
Before the film has even begun, the key choices that drive the film's narrative have already been made. The Counselor has joined forces with a former client, the ridiculously-coiffed, mush-mouthed demi-kingpin Reiner, and his partner, cowboy monk Westray, to purchase, on consignment (or something), a drug truck. Reiner and Westray repeatedly tell the Counselor to back out, because it will lead him to terrible places. He doesn't, and it does: through a series of unfortunate coincidences, their drug truck is stolen, and the cartel blames the Counselor and his partners. It's not even particularly reasonable, but it doesn't matter. Blame has to be attached to somebody. The cartels, like any firm, cannot appear weak. And, if you have any common sense at all, or if you can at least recognize voices at a cognitively normal level, you'll also quickly discern that Reiner's and Reiner's Ferrari's lover Malkina is not to be trusted.
Basically dispensing with a first act is, counterintuitively, a brilliant narrative strategy, not least because it's so profoundly different from almost anything else, but also because it underlines the film's most cogent idea: the inexorability of consequences.
Also different, and also brilliant, McCarthy and Scott have created a danger that is almost faceless, always invisible to the protagonists, and as a result everywhere. The events which bring our protagonists to their knees occur very far away; often, they are entirely unaware of them; and were they aware, they could do nothing to prevent or modify these events' outcomes.
Thus is The Counselor is one of the tensest films I've seen recently, and I've just plowed through about twenty Hitchcock films. I'll walk that back and explain that my absolute favorite Hitchock movie is Rope, ordinarily considered a lesser work and by some even a failed experiment, but another film where inevitability is its own reward.
If the first act is missing entirely, the third act seems almost truncated; The Counselor's tale doesn't end, it stops. And again, I applaud it, not solely because it is so different, but because, also, it works. There is no epilogue for the Counselor. His story finishes as it began, with machinations unseen, yet possessed of absolute power over him. When we leave him, what else could there be to show but the ruin that constitutes the monument to his life? Well, apparently a scene with Malkina, which I liked but am not sure was entirely necessary, or, rather, quite properly placed.
Lack of character motivation seems to be the second major problem with The Counselor. This is understandable criticism, and not at all unjustified.
But, you know, most didn't have any issue with his protagonist in Shame, whose "character" was "a man cursed with vast wealth and devastating good looks" and whose "motivation" was "being an asshole." GREAT FILM TWO BILLION THUMBS UP.
So why does the Counselor risk everything on a criminal endeavor? His life seems to be replete with luxury. He's got what seems to be a great job, a great girlfriend, and he has enough free time to hit the gym and to engage in beautifully photographed cunnilingus between sets of googol-count, spotless white sheets. But it's potentially simple enough: it's greed.
Or, it's as complex as you can imagine it. The Counselor does spare character details—without, I think, sacrificing character essence, for I believed in the Counselor's fatal combination of avarice, arrogance, and naivete; I believed in Reiner's collapsing glam-rock pretensions; I believed in Westray's hedonistic realism; I believed in Malkina's predator amorality; and I believed in Laura's innocence and even greater naivete than the Counselor's, brought out by her clear inexperience in talking dirty to the man she clearly wants to talk dirty to.
But as many details are missing, the film lends itself to interpretation, or rather speculation, regarding its characters' fuller stories. And it invites you to create explanations, filling in the blanks with your own experience, knowledge, and hang-ups. That it does so without also creating lifeless turds out of its characters is testament to good, however unconventional, screenwriting.
"My back's against the wall," the Counselor says. I certainly believed that too. Potentially the most annoying part of The Counselor could have been a callow promulgation of attorney lifestyle porn that serves as the delusional Hollywood version of the practice of law. Most lawyers do not live in awesome condos, drive great cars, wear great suits, and have sex with Penelope Cruz.2 The Counselor, insofar as The Counselor is a movie, naturally does all of these things.
And I expect he is crushed to death with debt to achieve the lifestyle of the movie lawyer he aspires, and appears, to be. Imagine the Harvard-educated ADA, now thrown out on his ass in a round of budget cuts; imagine him striking out into the badlands of criminal representation; imagine his income struggling to keep pace with the lifestyle to which he has become accustomed, to which he thought he had already paid for with massive student loans and years of hard work. Imagine a second mortgage on a condo that he's already having trouble affording, as paying clients vanish and student loan bills mount, just to buy a ring and all the other accoutrements of success that he thinks he needs to keep Laura and even to maintain his own image of himself as an agent, living human.
His back is against the wall; he built it, facing the wrong direction, and now he is indeed against it.
Imagine him taking on an impossible debt for a high-risk proposition that he hopes against all reason and common sense will pay off and let him live the life he has worked so long for, but could not earn. Imagine him being wrong and stupid but bound to make wrong and stupid decisions based on what he believes is required of him. Imagine him wishing it were as simple as oblivion as he is annihilated by an invisible combine that doesn't just not care, but doesn't even consider it personal.
It's easy if you try.
Consider this: the Counselor, at least, never did anything malum in se wrong. He bought some goods. He hoped to sell them. He hoped to profit on the sale.
Is his tangential involvement with a drug cartel so much worse than the compromises any of us make when we enter the stream of global commerce? If you must find it so repugnant to engage in trade with a cadre of murderers who have found their competitive advantage by overthrowing the rule of law, do kindly tell me where the electronic device you're reading this on was made. We're all of us helping to perpetuate terrible systems, but all we're trying to do is live.
Ultimately, what the Counselor did was take an economic risk that destroyed his life. As for why I love The Counselor, beyond its technical merits, it's because it tells, in however rough an allegory, the story of my generation.
If anyone reading this has gone to law school, hell, maybe any school, in the last few years—indeed, tried living in America the past few decades—it becomes rapidly apparent why The Counselor, atop its other fine qualities, moved me with a tale about the inescapable results of truly bad choices that nonetheless seemed like good ideas that offered the possibility of the Good Life at the time.
Perhaps the movie is more recommended than I initially believed. The burden need not be student loans for the Counselor's fall to hit you powerfully. It may be an ill-advised home purchase. Or a bad marriage. Or children you should not have had. Or your own drug deal gone bad; why not? That is certainly a demographic.
We all make mistakes. Sometimes we cannot, can never, make amends. That's The Counselor: bleak, hopeless, and true, it turns out even the examined life is not worth living when you have taken on a debt that you can never repay.
P.S. I also like the opening credits sequence. It's no Saul Bass art piece, but it's doing, you know, something. The score is, likewise, not quite great but certainly quite nice.
1 Ohhh, but it really kind of is. Be aware!↩
2 Nearly half of all lawyers are, in fact, not actually lawyers at all. This seeming paradox can be explained by the 44% rate at which juris doctorate holders do not have full-time jobs as actual attorneys. You're reading a movie review by one. For more depressing crap about the decline and fall of our corner of Western civilization, see Prof. Paul Campos' Inside The Law School Scam and its successor blog run by former law students and current critics of the unsustainable law school/all school human potential destruction factory.↩