Oct 27, 2013
My friend Gina asked me if The Counselor was trashy, in the hopes that the answer was a resounding yes. To her good fortune, "trashy" is probably the perfect description for this Ridley Scott venture written by Cormac McCarthy. As movies go, trashy is not always bad. Many trashy movies are wonderful pleasures. Among my favorite middlebrow trash, I count Louis Malle's Damage and Richard Eyre's Notes On A Scandal. Then there is intellectual trash (Claire Denis' Bastards, Lars Von Trier's Antichrist), and loads of basic trashy trash.
The Counselor aspires for high trash but it inexorably slips into lowbrow, trashy trash, albeit with a million-dollar cast. To get Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Brad Pitt and Cameron Diaz all together in one place qualifies as what in Mexico is called a major taco de ojo. An eye taco, a feast for the eyes (and decent acting).
Ridley Scott has never been a subtle or elegant director. At his best (The Duellists, Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, American Gangster, Black Hawk Down), he is a master of thrilling spectacle. At his not so good, his movies are all clunky bombast. The Counselor tries to have it both ways. The script is full of intermittently insightful philosophical musings about greed and evil and terrible human choices. What it lacks are characters with inner lives and a coherent plot. As is the case with No Country For All Men, McCarthy is more interested in expounding his thoughts about human depravity than in giving plausible, believable, realistic actions and motivations to his characters. They function only as devices to serve his morality plays. This is the reason why, as much as I enjoyed No Country For All Men, I did not believe one second of it. The same thing happens in The Counselor. The plot makes no sense.
Michael Fassbender plays the Counselor, a slick lawyer for Reiner, a sleazy, yet somehow lovable club impresario played with utter dissoluteness by Javier Bardem, who needs to stop toying with his hair. He is too much of a great actor to keep relying on ridiculous hair for his characters. It worked in No Country For Old Men and that was it. The most reliable way to describe these two business associates is, the Counselor (like Everyman, he doesn't have a name) wears Armani suits, while Reiner is festooned with Versace and looks like a human piñata. But whereas we do get a sense of the kind of person Reiner is (a genial, sleazy nightclub owner who likes to dabble on illegal stuff on the side), it is impossible to gather who the Counselor is, why he is there, where he comes from or what makes him tick. For McCarthy, the sole answer is greed, but for the audience this might not be enough. Why is the Counselor, who drives a hugely expensive car, the court appointed lawyer for a woman festering in jail (Rosie Perez, always good and always welcome)? Does he do charity on the side? Are we really supposed to believe he is as innocent as he professes? He is always surprised at the information supplied by Westray, (Brad Pitt), a character whose role in the whole adventure is unclear, except he is there like some sort of Stetson hat and cowboy boots wearing Greek chorus to explain to the Counselor in graphic detail how very bad the Mexican drug cartel is, and what a very bad idea it is to cross them. Yet even though he knows so much, and he is so certain of his safety, he makes a mistake so simple and unbelievable, and so telegraphed to the audience, you end up rolling your eyes. The second you see a sashaying female ass encased on a pristine white minitube skirt, you know this chick is trouble, but heretofore wise Westray is oblivious. This is the kind of lazy plot turn that sinks the movie into trashy trash. The movie is plagued by them.
The plot may be convoluted and unclear, but the movie is a fetishistic eye taco, as many Ridley Scott movies are. Which is what brings up the guilty pleasures. One of the best things in the movie is Cameron Diaz and her metallic silver nail polish. You will fixate on the nail polish and its burnished perfection, as you will fixate on her asymmetrical hairdo and the way her mesmerizing black eyeliner makes her look like the leopards she adores and keeps as pets. That's the kind of maleficent lady she is, and she is extremely good and entertaining as a ruthless narcowoman called Malkina. Diaz understands the campiness of the proceedings and lets rip accordingly. Not so fortunate is Penelope Cruz, who plays the counselor's love interest, an unlikely Polyanna who is oblivious to the fact that she is surrounded by the creme de la creme of the worst of the worst. How do we know she is a pure spirit? She claims she likes to go to church. Cormac McCarthy is not a subtle writer.
I had trouble reconciling the mansion where Bardem and Diaz live in with El Paso, Texas, but you can count on Ridley Scott for over the top production design, be it slick modern spaces that ooze ill gotten wealth, or shady Mexican lawyer offices that look like they were decorated by the Spanish Inquisition. All the scenes that take place in the shady underworld of the cartel and in supposedly Juarez, looking ridiculously colonial, are as sadly flimsy and fake as Reiner's mansion looks like money. Though the action is supposed to happen in and around El Paso and Juarez, the sense of place, like the characters, feels ersatz. That Scott, who has directed several movies in Mexico, still commissions music that sounds like a Cumbia infested version of the Gypsy Kings, only adds insult to injury.
Still, you get your pleasures where you can. In this literal, heavy handed movie, where first they tell you about the violence and then they cheaply show it to you, a wonderful relief is the appearance of several character actors who totally kill. Rosie Perez is one, but also, improbably, Bruno Ganz (Hitler from Downfall), as an Amsterdam diamond dealer; John Leguizamo, nailing it as a Colombian narco and, the man who absconds with the movie, Ruben Blades, as a mysterious go-between lawyer. He has one conversation over the phone, which he delivers with a world-weariness that is about the only truthful thing in the entire film.
Here and there we are treated to McCarthy's impassioned words about greed and corruption and the inevitability of evil, and here is where, if you could take this movie seriously, you could find a vital rant about the depraved evil of the drug trade and our pathetic approach to stomping it out. But literal as it is about everything else, the movie does not make the connection between the infinite hunger for drugs here in the States, and the depraved indifference to human suffering it encourages on the people doing the drug consuming; that is, between the beheadings and other terrible depravities that the cartels unleash as a way of doing business, and the bump of coke going up somebody's nose. A pity, because it's such a waste of words and resources. Just being a dark morality play is not enough. Being so schematic, The Counselor barely rises above expensive trash.