Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner) directed Exodus: Gods and Kings in 2014. It worked as a bookend to a year filled with huge and expensive blockbuster movies, but the biblical epic was received rather poorly by critics and audience members alike. The same can be said about the director’s 2013 movie, The Counselor, as many claimed it to be his worst movie to date. In this feature, I want to present a different perspective of the latter, as it is – in my opinion – a bridge between mediums, a cinematic achievement that will be remembered as a misjudged masterpiece of literary cinema.
This analysis is based upon the Extended Cut of the movie and contains spoilers for the entire movie. I do, however, try to keep it to a diffuse minimum.
The pen is mightier than the sword
It can be difficult to distinguish the director from the screenwriter, and for reasons – maybe unfair – most people like to reference the director as captain. When I used Ridley Scott’s name in the introduction, it automatically became his movie. He is made captain by our inability to accept one simple truth; a director can, in some cases, be the vessel for which a screenwriter presents his story, his film. The Counselor is such a movie.
The Counselor is Cormac McCharthy’s first venture in to screenplays, although his novels have been adapted into feature films in the past – see No Country for Old Men, The Road, Child of God and others. With The Counselor however, McCharthy has penned the entire screenplay by himself, and with the Extended Cut of the movie and a digital copy of said screenplay by my side, it leaves no doubt as to who this movie really belongs to.
To watch The Counselor is to read McCharthy. A tale of greed, moral ambiguity and man’s uncontrollable desire to own, and take, more than one can possibly handle. It is not a movie, as much as it is a classic McCharthy novel; accompanied by imagery to illustrate his words – the suburban and bleak universe of which The Counselor takes place – and these words, the dialogue, is read to us by passionate actors, faces to the poetic and sophisticated philosophical nature of this tale. It is sad to see it forgotten in the dust because it doesn’t fit any normal genre classification. Not only because neither Ridley Scott nor Cormac McCharthy tries to confine it into the shackles of genre movies, but because without interest for discussion – with eyes closed for new experiences – the fact (I say, fact!) that this is one of the greatest stories screened at cinemas in the past decades, will be lost and forever forgotten. Do keep an open mind however, and you will get a glimpse into the darkest desires of man. The inevitable consequences to our actions, and how we deal with the scary truth that is; we cause these consequences, and if we, in a desperate last attempt to avoid the effect of them, try to seek guidance or solace elsewhere, there will be no escaping our own mistakes, faults or actions.
Poeticism in dialogue
“The world in which you seek to undo the mistakes that you make, is different from the world where the mistakes were made. You’re now at the crossing. And you want to choose, but there is no choosing. There’s only accepting. The choosing was done a long time ago.”
It is extravagant and constructed – showy and pretentious – and far from how any real man or woman would ever talk. Even so, there is a poetic lyricism to it; managing to say and express more in one paragraph than most movies do with their entire screenplay. The McCharthyism is painfully evident, and weaves itself from the page to the screen with an unprecedented elegance.
As we delve into a typical thriller tale of a drug deal gone awry, McCharthy uses this as a foundation to build his social political commentary; the greed and brutality of man. Our main man, the Counselor (Michael Fassbender) meets with Reiner (Javier Bardem) and Westray (Brad Pitt) to discuss the possibilities of the venture the are about to embark upon, and each conversation has a cautionary tone. “Counselor, if you pursue this road that you’ve embarked upon, you will eventually come to moral decisions that will take you completely by surprise. You won’t see it coming at all.” – Reiner warns the counselor as plain and simple as one can do, but as is the case with most men of power, the counselor thinks himself untouchable inside his bubble.
This is not the case however. When things go from bad to worse, it is Westray – the most reluctant and self-obedient of the three – that relays the message to the counselor. In a scene (pictured above) they meet to talk business; the consequences of a single mistake. In the mind of the counselor, this mistake exists alone – in seclusion from his illegal business with the mexican cartel. Sadly for him and everyone close to him, for the cartel, this mistake exists as an extension – a middle-man, a silent chess piece – of their dealings with the counselor, Westray and Reiner.
The movie reinforces this in the final act, when the counselor is talking with El Jefe (The boss) – the supposed leader of the cartel – and he showcases the reality of how one event, or action, will give cause and effect from one world to another. How the mistake can exist both in the world of seclusion and in the world of openness, but not without creating another, third, world; a world where they intertwine, and the one with the knowledge of this, will always win.
“You are the world you have created. And when you cease to exist, this world that you have created will also cease to exist. But for those with the understanding that they’re living the last days of the world, death acquires a different meaning. The extinction of all reality is a concept no resignation can encompass. And then, all the grand designs and all the grand plans will be finally exposed and revealed for what they are. And now, Counselor, I have to go, because I have to make other calls. If I have time, I think I’ll take a small nap.”
El Jefe, or the boss, is a character we’ve seen a thousand times before. A mean-spirited, emotionally corrupt, mass-murderer. By the hands of McCharthy, El Jefe becomes a philosopher; a man of dreams and ambitions. A man who can take an innocent life in the most brutal of ways, but still reveal a hidden truth. A truth that can, and will, take on any form; it can be dark and morbid, bright and promising; all dependent on whom the truth is spoken to. As the counselor learns this truth, Michael Fassbender gives one of his best performances to date – and looking back at Hunger and Shame, this means a lot. He breaks down, the truth is tossed in his face in the very first minute of the conversation, but the conversation continues. It shames him; convinced he does not yet understand. “Do you love your wife so much, so completely, that you would exchange places with her upon the wheel? And I don’t mean dying, because dying is easy.” – “Yes! Yes, damn you!” – “Well, that is good to hear, Counselor.” – “What are you saying? Are you saying this is a possibility?” – “No. It’s impossible.”. The truth was given and received earlier, but it is when hope and love is destroyed, that it is understood.
The medusa’s head
McCharthy is oft criticised for his portrayal of female characters, and with The Counselor he seems intent to set the record straight. While I have chosen to focus on the decrepit fall of the counselor this far, there is a lot to be said about Malkina (Cameron Diaz) and Laura (Penélope Cruz) as well – especially Malkina, the femme fatale of this tale. The medusa’s head.
The Medusa’s Head is a short essay written by Sigmund Freud in 1922, where he equates the decapitation/petrification that is synonymous with the greek mythological creature, to the fear of castration. Malkina may not be depicted with snakes for hair, but the parallels to the venomous creature is all but subtle. She slithers around, silent and almost unnoticeable, only to strike with a ferocious and deadly bite when every piece lines up in her favour. She is introduced as Reiner’s woman. His latest in a long line of female companions. Something to be owned. This is where some might lash out at McCharthy, but he never intends to flatter this lifestyle. Reiner and the other men in The Counselor is depicted as rich, and up until a certain point, carefree individuals, but as Martin Scorsese did in The Wolf of Wall Street, McCharthy lets the audience observe and judge for themselves.
Malkina and Laura are the complete opposites; Malkina is calculative, murderous and self-observant, while Laura is kind, passionate and considerate. Laura becomes the most relatable character in the movie, an innocent bystander in a sea of crime and corruption. As Malkina is rooted in Freudian theories, Laura is rooted in Catholicism. They are opposites. Each with their own unique idealism. They do however have one thing in common: flaws. The men in The Counselor are broken. I’ve talked about their moral corruption. The woman however are more human; real, and in the case of Laura, relatable. There is a scene very early on in the movie where the counselor is buying diamonds for Laura. Here he talks to a man we understand is a prestigious jeweller, and as their conversation go from anecdote to anecdote, the movie is carefully proving a point. It is both painfully obvious and hidden at the same time (again, contradictions), as the conversation is focused one-hundred precent on the technical linguistics of diamonds; H-color, VVS1, pavilion. As you lose yourself in this seemingly pointless extradition of words, the movie explains to us; humanity is flawed, and without these flaws, we become nothing. “The perfect diamond would be composed simply of light”.
You get what you read
So, is this movie actually about anything. Read a review from your standard publications – where every movie is reviewed by the same standards – and you will find many would tell you no. They would tell you the only reason they knew what was going on, was because of the synopsis – A lawyer finds himself in over his head when he gets involved in drug trafficking – and that the pseudo-narrative loses itself in the scribbles of McCharthy.
I would beg to differ; The Counselor is about so much, so chock full of stories, themes and ideas, that one should rather argue that the pseudo-narrative loses itself in its ambition. Give in to this ambition, and you can uncover any story you can think of. For me, the most interesting aspect is the concept of banality. Most obvious the banality of evil – where the actions of the counselor fits very well with Hannah Arendt’s introduction of the expression – but also the banality of greed and excess. A terrifying looking-glass that shows us the dangers of everyday stupidity. The idea that a moral compass should always be able to point in every direction, because the world is never simply north or south – black or white – but rather a mess of directions.
As much as I like to hail and celebrate McCharthy’s script, it is easy to understand why the movie was received as poorly as it was. The dialogue never shies away from the pretentious nature of McCharthy’s hand; the sophisticated and intentionally diffuse. The story is hidden beneath layer upon layer of literary references and the language of a writer whom, in his original habitat, many people can’t understand. My first few screenings of The Counselor was difficult, and at times painful; but with each viewing one layer seemed to fall away and give room for more. More introspection and entertainment. The movie becomes stronger and better with every viewing – a feet few to no other movies manages to even aspire to.