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.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Devils and black-sheep and really bad eggs

I admit to being among the folks who were apprehensive about the amendments to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride in DisneyWorld, but it wasn’t all that bad.  They didn’t mutilate the sets or remove the “Yo-Ho” song; they just placed an animatronic Jack Sparrow in a few spots and made a throwaway reference to Davy Jones.  Die-hard fans of the Gore Verbinski Pirates films had the same initial reaction when they learned of the fourth installment, which serves as a sort of “reboot” to the series, crowning a new director, eliminating most of the supporting cast (including Bloom and Knightley), and reverting to the classic adventure film structure.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is directed by Rob Marshall and claims to be “suggested by” Tim Powers’ novel, On Stranger Tides, a truly epic historical/mythological fiction in which the protagonist, Jack Shandy, finds himself on board Blackbeard’s ship on a journey to the Fountain of Youth.  Jack Sparrow finds himself in similar circumstances here.  The story begins with Sparrow (Johnny Depp) pulling a daring, antic-laden rescue in London, aiding his best friend, Joshamee Gibbs (Kevin McNally) in escaping trial and execution.  From there, Sparrow encounters several new characters, including Angelica (Penélope Cruz), a former flame he neglected to mention during the events of the first three films, Scrum (the prolific Stephen Graham), a musical deckhand helping Angelica enlist new shipmates, and his oddball father, the mysteriously-named Captain Teague (Keith Richards), who seemingly has his hair done by the same Voodoo hairdresser as Jack.  Angelica ropes Jack into a journey onboard the Queen Anne’s Revenge, the ship belonging to her supposed father, Blackbeard (Ian McShane), and the reluctant Sparrow agrees, his real motives unknown even to himself.  Other characters include the returning Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, having fun as usual), who has inexplicably joined the King’s Navy to seek the Fountain for England; Philip Swift (Sam Claflin), a missionary and Boring Hero replacing Orlando Bloom; Syrena (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey), a mermaid; the underused Spaniard (Óscar Jaenada), the head of the Spanish Secret Service aiming to destroy the Fountain; and Richard Griffiths as the historical King George II, portrayed as the pompous blowhard he was.

The new cast is an effective ensemble and most (not all) deserve the sans-Depp scenes they get to carry by themselves.  Rush transitions from his amazing performance in The King’s Speech to reprising Barbossa, and the results are great – it’s different.  He’s not just a pirate this time; he has his own motives, and they thread into the story without delving into endless, bloated side-plots.  That said, the film as a whole is much stronger and leaner than the previous two in terms of focus, length, and characterization.  Marshall remembers the humor, fun and spirit of the first film, Curse of the Black Pearl, and also that getting an audience to care about characters doesn’t mean simply putting them on screen for a long time and having them whine about their problems (although, to be fair, Philip and Syrena don’t quite deserve what we’re supposed to feel for them).  Cruz gels into these films and their adapted history and mythology far better than Keira Knightley in terms of ethnic background, sea-going experience and virtually everything about the character’s life, not to mention acting style – don’t get me wrong; Knightley’s chops are undeniable, but in terms of maritime historical fiction, Cruz just fits.  McShane’s Blackbeard is menacing, and many of his scenes with Depp are priceless.  Of particular interest to me (a person greatly into maritime history) was the mention of Blackbeard’s real-life death, though after the journey begins, the Blackbeard of On Stranger Tides isn’t quite as engaging a character as much of the supporting cast, particularly Angelica, Scrum, and Barbossa.

This is the first film in the series to employ actual references to history with actors performing as people who once existed (if you don’t count Mrs. Cheng in At World’s End), and it is mostly a success.  Suddenly, the mythology makes sense.  Yes, there was the butchered (but inspired) mythology of parts 2 and 3 in the series, including the amalgam of Davy Jones, the Flying Dutchman, and the kraken, but all that clears the way for material we can more readily sink our teeth into, including stories about mermaids.  As told in many songs and tales of the age, if a sailor saw a mermaid, it was a sign his ship would soon come to wreck.  The mermaids here don’t presume to shatter any stereotypes; they’re vicious creatures with a nondiscriminatory hunger for the blood of men (except Syrena, apparently, who has a heart of gold).  Gemma Ward briefly appears in the film’s best and most harrowing sequence, singing the traditional “Jolly Sailor Bold” with Stephen Graham before the predicted massacre at the fictional Whitecap Bay.  While wonderful, the sequence could have been improved with some genuine surprise, i.e. not having a grizzled old sailor babble for five minutes prior about how mermaids are sure to appear and eat the crew at any minute.

While taking inspiration from the Powers novel, the film also follows suit with the other three and borrows from Ron Gilbert’s Monkey Island series of video games, which in turn was inspired by the DisneyWorld ride.  References in this film include the Voodoo fetch quest/ritual, the deserted island on which a certain someone is marooned, and Blackbeard’s Voodoo doll of Jack Sparrow – light in comparison to the heavy references in the first two movies, particularly Jack Davenport’s costume in Dead Man’s Chest, but it’s there, and it’s satisfying if you know the references.  History, the original ride, a good adventure novel, and Ron Gilbert: sounds like a good package, right?

The film doesn’t hit every mark, but it “does the rounds” as far as blockbuster adventure films go.  Kids understand what’s going on even if they’d rather have the CG fish people and giant squid, and there’s enough clever humor, maritime historical play and responsible treatment of characters to keep adult displeasure limited to the fact that you’re sitting in a very uncomfortable seat for over two hours.

P.S. See it in 2D, or you won’t see much of anything.

P.P.S. A script for a fifth film has been completed.  My main concern?  They’ve used up all the good lines from the ride.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides; written by Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott; directed by Rob Marshall; starring Johnny Depp, Penélope Cruz, Geoffrey Rush and Ian McShane.