November 7, 2013

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Script at odds with action in “The Counselor”

I SAW “THE COUNSELOR” PRIMARILY BECAUSE I read a script excerpt online in which Cameron Diaz’s character sexually violates the windshield of a Ferrari. Javier Bardem’s character describes the act to his lawyer, saying, “It was like one of those, one of those catfish things, you know, one of those bottom feeders you see going up the way of the aquarium sucking its way up the glass.” 

That one line of dialogue was so baffling and lewd that I had to know what the rest of the film was like. As cringe-inducing as it is written, Bardem’s delivery makes it worse, especially when he garnishes the line with a quick succession of popping sounds.  

Cormac McCarthy is known for his unrelenting and sparse novels, steeped in crime and hopelessness.  His books are challenging reads, not due to length or word choice, but because the desperation that flows through the narrative latches onto the reader, making each page more difficult than the last. Yet they are rewarding, and have led to some excellent films, like “No Country for Old Men.”  

Pairing McCarthy with Ridley Scott and adding a dynamic cast with people like Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt seems like a home run. It isn’t. Despite a ruthless screenplay, the film plods its way through each scene, never building any excitement or tension.  

“The Counselor” tells a story of drug smugglers and Mexican cartels, seeming to revel in the brutality of the lifestyle. There are several inventive murders: decapitation appears to rank high in the cause-of-death reference book. As with most McCarthy works, criminals are almost an otherworldly force, single-minded, merciless and punishing. Those that work with them, those that take advantage of their products, and those that carry out the killings are equally responsible for the heinous inhuman actions of the cartel. There is no escape for those that cross their path; no one is innocent no matter how innocent they appear to be. 

You might think that with such high stakes, the film would be highly engrossing. Unfortunately, McCarthy’s writing gets in the way of the pacing. Most of the characters talk in long, wordy speeches that seem at odds with their characterization. The words are beautiful and careful, strong writing that would leap from the page of a novella or short story and burn into the memory of the reader. It would match well with absorbing descriptions of the desert landscape. On film, however, the audience is too aware of the composition. We know that people don’t talk this way, especially high-ranking members of drug cartels. Philosophical musings simply work better when read than they do when spoken aloud.

Aside from the screenplay, which again would be a wonderful read, the acting is effective if understated. Javier Bardem continues in his never-ending quest for a good haircut, and while he is a good actor, the wordiness of the film is occasionally too much for his heavy Spanish accent. Pitt and Fassbender fare better, as does Cameron Diaz, although I’m still not clear on the motivations for her character, and by the time the film got around to explaining it with cheetah metaphors, I was more than ready for the lights to come up. 

The film is too long by about 20 minutes, and waiting for the resolution for each character was like standing in line at the grocery store, counting the 15 items in the cart in front of you when the sign clearly says ten items or less. You just want to get what you came for and go home. The movie isn’t an entire waste, although the notions of sexuality seem to have come directly from the mind of a 15-year-old. There are some very good speeches—the film may become a quotable trivia piece for film buffs a few years down the line. I can see it having staunch defenders in the near future. They’ll be wrong, but it might be a fun debate.

Ultimately, the film is frustrating for what it might have been. There is a lot of talent here, too much for it to become an “Ishtar,” but nothing of note really happens in the story and what little does happen happens to people we don’t care about. Thrillers need thrills and suspense needs tension. “The Counselor” is woefully short on both.


November 7, 2013

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