Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Counselor: A Walk on the Wild Side

Everybody had to pay and pay
A hustle here and a hustle there

The Counselor, Ridley Scott's latest masterpiece from a screenplay by Cormac McCarthy, arrived the same weekend that Lou Reed was released from this world.  I saw the film twice in one weekend, then downloaded the original screenplay.  Expect spoilers ahead!

The film is an existential variation of a familiar trope:  the one last heist.  Except that in this version, it's the Counselor's (played by Michael Fassbender) first foray into illegal activity. He attributes it to greed, but his partner Reiner (Javier Bardem), who displays accurate intuitions (certainly with regard to his lover Malkina, played by Cameron Diaz), doesn't buy it:

Reiner:  I know you don't have any money or you wouldn't be in this jackpot in the first place.
Counselor:  Maybe.
Reiner:  Yeah. Well.  I know why I'm in it.  Do you?
Counselor:  Sure.  Same as you.  Greed.
Reiner:  I don't think so.  You got in trouble.  I tried to appeal to your greed two years ago. No deal.  Now it's too late.  Greed is greatly overrated.  But fear isn't.

The counselor drives a Bentley and wears Armani, but he lives in a condo and doesn't appear to desire the opulence that Reiner exults in.  The exception for the Counselor is the 3.9 carat diamond that he buys (from a dealer played by Bruno Ganz, who of course was an angel in Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire) for his  beloved Laura (Penelope Cruz). (Malkina explains in the published screenplay--a scene that was cut--that diamonds average out to about ten thousand dollars a carat.)

The Counselor is, ironically, the one seeking counsel in this film--from Reiner ("What do you think I should do?").  From Westray (played by Brad Pitt), who says to the Counselor, "What are you?  A mental defective?"  after the Counselor says he's going to throw a few things in his car and leave when the proverbial shit starts to hit the fan.

Counselor:  What am I supposed to drive?
Westray:  I can't advise you, Counselor. Call a cab.

Malkina seeks the counsel and forgiveness of the priest.  And ultimately, the Counselor seeks counsel from the Jefe (RubĂ©n Blades) of the drug cartel.  The Counselor wants to know what he can do to reverse fate and save Laura.  The Jefe tells him, " there is no choosing.  There is only accepting.  The choosing was done long ago."

And that, I think, is the key to the film. Whatever the Counselor's motivation was, it set in motion inexorable consequences. The particular reason for the Counselor is left a mystery by McCarthy, because he's addressing this truth to all of us to ponder.  The dealer tells the Counselor, "...there is no perfect diamond."  Perhaps the Counselor's search for perfection led to his downfall.  Perhaps McCarthy's point is simply that there is no possibility of perfection or redemption since The Fall.  And he underscores this by setting the story in the objective correlative of imperfection, of depravity:  Juarez.

Even acts of kindness can't reverse the mal.  In fact, things start to go to hell in a handbasket when the Counselor offers to post bail for the son of a prisoner (played by Rosie Perez) whom the Counselor was appointed by the court to represent.  The son, it turns out, is involved with the drug deal.  No good deed goes unpunished in the world of Cormac McCarthy.

In fact, McCarthy's ending was even darker--in his script, Malkina is five months' pregnant at the end with a boy; she reveals that the father isn't Reiner, and that had it been a girl, she would have aborted it.

Some other random things one learns from The Counselor:

--Never trust a character with "mal" in his or her name (Malkina--and let us not forget Mal Reese in John Boorman's classic, Point Blank).  Especially beware of a woman with a leopard tattoo running down her back. (BTW, Diaz should get an Academy Award nomination for this film.  "Brave" doesn't begin to do justice to her performance.)

--"All right" actually means its opposite in this film.  Sometimes it's used like "Okay" or "I understand" or "If that's what you intend to do." In any case, it's a constant refrain in McCarthy's script.  If you haven't yet seen the film or if you see it again, pay attention to how much and how it's used.

--Beware of Cadillac Escalades.  They are machines of Death.  Contemporary hearses.

--Ferraris are perhaps engineered for defilement:

The film opens with a sweet, sexy scene with the Counselor and Laura under the sheets. In contrast is Malkina "fucking" Reiner's Ferrari--masturbating on it and scaring the shit out of him.  The expressions on Bardem's face in this scene are worth the price of the film.

I think this is Ridley Scott's best film since Blade Runner.  It's perfection.  The tech credits are stellar:  Darius Wolski's cinematography, the great score (at times there are tones reminiscent of those in Blade Runner) by Daniel Pemberton, Arthur Max's production design, Janty Yates's imaginative costume design, and Pietro Scalia's editing.

This is a film for grown ups.  Many will be put off by its non-naturalistic, abstract dialogue. It's a philosophical piece.  But thanks to Scott, it's also a movie.  As with Blade Runner, I expect that five or so years from now, audiences will realize how remarkable an achievement it is.

In any case, you gotta love a movie that quotes Body Heat:

Westray:  Maybe I should tell you what Mickey Rourke told what's-his-face.  That's my recommendation.
Counselor:  (Smiling)  Because I'll tell you something, Counselor.  This arson is a serious crime.
Westray:  And so is this.

Here's the trailer:

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