The Counselor

Truth has no temperature

the-counselorCormac McCarthy’s The Counselor is a film comprised entirely of dialogue and brutally matter-of-fact violence, wherein characters communicate via Shavian monologues and aphorisms.  On another level, it’s a film wherein everyone talks about decapitation, and then everyone gets decapitated.  I wish I meant it more figuratively.

McCarthy isn’t known for gentle narrative.  His themes of unstoppable evil and destruction in both the novel and movie versions of No Country For Old Men are about as subtle as a kangaroo in a dinner jacket (thanks, Chandler).  This worked well in tandem with the Coen Brothers, who employ similar themes, but when it comes to Ridley Scott, I’ve discovered that anything magical usually happens by sheer coincidence (talk to me about Alien sometime).  The narrative is right in line with Scott’s violent tendencies, but as far as thematic material, nuance is not part of this film’s vocabulary.  If a character in The Counselor gives another character a warning about how to behave in a certain situation, that situation inevitably comes up.  If someone seems way to concerned with his own well-being, or seems a bit too confident that he will make it out of this story alive, he dies (more brutally based on level of arrogance).  Early on, a bizarre, head-removing weapon is mentioned in casual conversation between the titular character (Michael Fassbender) and his associate Reiner (Javier Bardem).  Reiner tells him something along the lines of “You have to see these things to believe them.  Once you see them, they change you.”  By the patterns established thus far, do you think this exact weapon appears later on?  At this point, I almost wanted Reiner to add, “Do you know what the term ‘Chekhov’s Gun’ means?”

The narrative itself plops us into the middle of a business deal that has been in the works, in some form, for about two years.  Exact details are sparse, but the Counselor, an unremarkable lawyer whose greed has finally gotten the best of him, has invested in a drug deal with a four-thousand percent return rate.  His partners include the aforementioned Reiner, a posh mogul in the underground club scene; a blowhard cowboy named Westray (Brad Pitt); and most importantly, Malkina (Cameron Diaz), an unbridled sociopath with a traumatic past and a nearly full-body tattoo of a cheetah.  Malkina is named after the Grimalkin, an evil faery cat in Scottish mythology (during the infamous witch trials, many women were preposterously accused of using the Grimalkin as a familiar).  The other players are the Counselor’s painfully naive girlfriend, Laura (Penelope Cruz), who has no idea about his goings-on (and is thus destined to be a sacrificial lamb because of them); The Wireman (Sam Spruell), a simultaneously theatrical and stone-faced mook working for Malkina; and of course, the shadowy Cartel, who are never portrayed as much more than ill-tempered and bumbling grunts (with the exception of a high-ranking member played by Rubén Blades), but who, in the words of Westray, will “rip out your liver and feed it to your dog” in the event of a misstep.  Other vital but briefly-seen characters appear; I’ll get to them later.

The Counselor performs a legal favor for Ruth (Rosie Perez), a client currently in prison, whose son, a biker known as the Green Hornet (Richard Cabral), is a cartel member involved in transporting the cocaine – unbeknownst, of course, to the Counselor, whose involvement in the Hornet’s case is the Inevitable Fuckup that catalyzes the film’s tragic narrative thread.  When the Wireman assassinates the Hornet and steals the cocaine, everyone’s crosshairs gravitate toward the Counselor (which is a bit of a surprise, given his apparent knack for keeping his name a secret, but everyone knows that in the movies, two organizations are always invincible and omnipotent: the Mafia and the Cartel).  He asks everyone what to do.  No one knows or cares.  The wealthy Westray can make himself disappear if he likes, so he travels to London in order to waste time until everything blows over.

These events unfold on minimal sets, and through dialogue clearly meant for the stage.  People say big things, and you know that in this world, they’re right.  Irrelevant characters (albeit played by great actors like Toby Kebbell and John Leguizamo) are shoehorned between important scenes to pontificate about some broad concept.  While this approach to dialogue is pragmatic for this type of narrative and quite pleasant to listen to, I’m not sure I’d call it “good.”  It’s indulgent.  McCarthy’s characters resemble Greek gods, or some other beings that know more than regular humans do and stage their battles in a world separate from everyone else’s – note the names of the ancillary characters – The Blonde (Natalie Dormer), The Buyer (Dean Norris), The Diamond Dealer (Bruno Ganz), The Priest (Edgar Ramirez) – people named for roles and functions.   The Blonde exists to distract someone.  The Buyer exists to buy the cocaine (and give narrative satisfaction to, quite literally, the only bit of plot movement).  The Diamond Dealer exists to sell a diamond to someone important.  Someone more important will receive the diamond, and someone even more important will notice the diamond later.

The female characters are either stereotypically innocent and helpless, or sexually manipulative and calculatingly evil.  In and of itself, this is irresponsible and clumsy, even for (perhaps especially for) such a forwardly “masculine” writer as McCarthy, but consider the fact that none of the male characters are very layered either.  The Counselor is the everyman.  Reiner is vanity.  Westray is misplaced confidence.  The Blonde is a succubus.  Malkina is death.  I’m sure you could find a tarot card that corresponds to everyone in this story.  I’d never excuse badly-constructed female characters, and there’s no excuse for a story populated entirely with thin characters, but I guess I’m thinking about intention here – not that the writer’s intentions aren’t transparent or shopworn, but I still can’t help but imagine this same story with this same dialogue taking place in an arena theatre.  Cameron Diaz digs up a performance so commanding that one wonders why she has been so heavily relegated to funny love interest roles and self-conscious cameos.

I am lucky to have seen this film, but I’m not sure I could see it again (I had similar feelings about the adeptly-constructed Shame, also starring Fassbender).  All the wrong people are killed, and not ironically.  Death scenes are dragged on until the character bleeds out, and if that doesn’t take long enough, it’s shown in slow-motion.  The excess of the violence would be laughable if not for the film’s hopeless tone and the way the blood brightens against the black and yellow deserts and cool cityscapes, which are so bland they may as well be black-and-white.

I feel compelled to mention a certain internet consensus that states, “The Counselor has received negative reviews.”  I’ve read some of these reviews, and I’ve come to a conclusion that I cannot stop coming to: the Hollywood blurbsters cannot deal with anything that does not operate under a formula they’ve accepted as one of X amount of ways a storyteller is allowed to tell a story.  I promise you: there is no limit.  Everything has not been done.  A fiction author is allowed to write a screenplay any way (s)he desires, and you are free not to like it, but the implication that McCarthy had no clue what he was doing is beyond sophomoric and belongs on the blogging room floor.  Formula is dying.  Get hungry for new types of narrative.  As the final line of the film goes, “I’m famished.”

The_Counselor_PosterThe Counselor (2013); written by Cormac McCarthy; directed by Ridley Scott; starring Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, and Penelope Cruz.

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Unknown (2011)

Wait… who’s the trained assassin?

The only thing more popular than a thriller these days is a thriller in which the audience is not required to figure out much of anything.  If you’ve seen the trailers for Unknown, Jaume Collet-Serra’s new flick, you have to ask yourself: “Did they really want me to go see this movie?”  So much is given away in present-day film trailers that I’m not entirely convinced films themselves won’t soon be thirty seconds long and inserted into ESPN News’ commercial breaks.

Unknown is a film in which questions beget questions, and you have to forget half of them in order to accept what’s next.  It begins on a quiet note, with scientist Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) and his wife, Liz (January Jones) visiting Berlin for an important botany summit (it’s a thriller, I swear).  Somewhere in all the hassles of settling into the hotel, Harris leaves his briefcase behind.  He goes back to retrieve it, and the cab in which he’s riding takes a not-so-refreshing dip in the river.  His life is saved by the cab driver, Gina (the amazing Diane Kruger).  After emerging from a four-day coma, Harris returns to his wife to discover that not only has she forgotten him, but he has been replaced with another man (Aidan Quinn) going by the name Martin Harris.  Through one thing and another, Harris must seek out Gina’s assistance in figuring the whole thing out.

At first, there seems to be a traceable breadcrumb trail – Harris’ notebook with little codes in it, constant (and almost random) flashbacks to tender moments between Harris and his wife, and so on – just little bits and pieces to sink our sleuthing teeth into.  But the eventual revelation of what’s really going on is nothing you could have figured out from the clues, most (if not all) of which turn out to be the reddest of herrings.

Not giving the audience the ability to solve the puzzle doesn’t make a poor thriller.  What makes a poor thriller  is overkill, or in this case, overthrill.  When David Copperfield made a fighter jet disappear, he made a fighter jet disappear.  He didn’t start with a rabbit, then a limousine, then an elephant.  If he had, you’d have been exhausted and unimpressed by the time the curtain had even closed on the plane.  Unknown earns its title.  A lot of why? is thrown at us, not least of which is Why does this film have two and a half climaxes?

The film shines when it comes to the performances.  Liam Neeson does the same thing he did in Taken, and he does it well, even if it is just running around, looking bewildered and beating the shit out of non-American people.  Bruno Ganz appears as yet another former German military man, but doesn’t seem the least bit convinced that he should stop.  Frank Langella even shows up in the film’s third act as an important character, but the brevity of this appearance leads me to wonder whether Langella is only allowed to appear in each of his movies for under ten minutes.  Is it in his contract?  Diane Kruger, however, steals this movie, and not just in performance: I’d argue that Gina is the real hero of the story.  She saves Harris from certain doom on three separate occasions, and disposes of the film’s villains herself.  She doesn’t need to.  She has no investment in this Harris guy, who may very well be insane, but she does it anyway.  Why?  She’s a person who helps.  It’s in her blood.

(Spoilers ahead, because you’d feel betrayed if I didn’t warn you)

To round out this piece, I need to reveal the big secret: Harris is a trained assassin, and his “wife” is actually just his professional partner.  The Martin Harris story was just a cover for the duo to kill a famous botanist (Sebastian Koch), and when Harris slammed his head into the cab window, he didn’t forget who his wife was, nor did he create a whole scenario around a woman he’d never met – he just forgot he’d made it up himself.  The problem here is an old fashioned case of irresponsible writing.  This plot twist causes the film to change from drama/thriller to thriller/action movie.  Gina saves Harris a final time after Langella clumsily spells out all the answers, as diabolical villains often do just before failing to kill the hero, and this should be the end.  But no, there’s another climax: now the super duo need to infiltrate the botany summit, disarm a bomb, save everyone, and kill the two uninteresting characters (Liz and the fake Martin, who was actually just a replacement for Harris himself after the car crash), neither of which have anything to do with the story at this point.  Even the dialogue changes to action-movie dialogue.  “I didn’t forget everything!  I remember how to kill you, asshole!”  This choice leaves us with no chance for a satisfying ending.

Was the car crash set up?  If so, how did they know Harris would forget his briefcase, which just happened to have the Collected MacGuffins inside?  By the same token, why would a longtime master assassin leave his mission’s most important tool on a hotel trolley?  Why wouldn’t the other assassins (four are shown in the film) go collect the briefcase?  Why would it be necessary to execute Harris after he woke up?  Couldn’t they just explain to him what happened if he had truly forgotten, and welcome him back to the “family,” as it were?  How would Harris regain his “assassin” bull-shitsu in a single instant, but not regain his desire to be an assassin?  Why don’t we see Harris confront Liz after trying to get to her throughout the entire film?  Why does Langella’s evil character mention his grandchildren so much?  Are we supposed to feel bad?  The laundry list of questions goes ever on, but if you can take the film’s twists with a fistful of salt, it’s an enjoyable and well-made thriller (note the differences between well-made and well-written).

Unknown is Collet-Serra’s best film, and it comes very, very close to being excellent.  We just needed one more rabbit pulled out of the hat (perhaps that the story of him being an assassin was, in fact, just another lie to throw him off course).  Instead, the filmmakers just tore the rabbit’s ears off.

Unknown (2011); written by Oliver Butcher; directed by Jaume Collet-Serra; starring Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, and January Jones.

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