Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Counselor (2013) – Review

Review: The Counselor is a crime drama that explores the good and evil (mostly evil) of man. The film is about a successful Texas lawyer who is enchanted by greed and wants more. To get it, he commits to a deal with a South American drug cartel. When their drug shipment is hijacked, the cartel blames the lawyer and his associates (a club-owner named Reiner and a go-between Westray). Now, the lawyer finds his whole world collapsing, making him realize what is really important to him – his lovely fiancée Laura, not the money and power he was initially allured by.

Let me just start out by saying: no, The Counselor is not a crime thriller filled with suspenseful action sequences (which is what most going in seem to believe it is) – and it was never meant to be. Rather, it is a set of conversations (much like Richard Linkerlaker’s Before Sunrise series about the nature of relationships and love) between a variety of characters (primarily centered around the Texas lawyer, only referred to as Counselor) about good and evil, ranging from greed, sex, money to love, acceptance, and life’s meaning. Many of the conversations (which all contain weighty and well-written dialog from Cormac McCarthy) seem to take on a philosophical feel, as many double as lessons about life.  It is these conversations and wonderful performances from the cast that make the film something special.

Those expecting (and only wanting) action and thrilling suspense will likely be disappointed and find the film slow and probably convoluted – unwilling to settle in, pay attention, and absorb all that the film offers.

Director Ridley Scott, working with McCarthy, gives the film a beautiful aesthetic look and the gloss of high production quality. The world in which these devious characters inhabit has a sheen to it, which nicely juxtaposes to the grimy underworld in which they deal. El Paso is seemingly a perfect setting, as just across the border is Juarez one of Mexico’s most crime-ridden cities, plunged into poverty and despair by the cartel’s control and constant violence. El Paso must seem like a shining beacon by comparison. In this setting, the audience is treated to a parable of sorts.

In many ways, Ridley Scott has made what narratively feels like an independent drama with the budget, look, and style of a bigger Hollywood film. While Hollywood films have become driven by action set pieces, simple narratives, and happy endings, The Counselor offers none of these. The film is not void of action, as there are a few very violent moments, but they are not there to provide the audience with exciting moments, and none of them involve the film’s lead character (who the audience has an investment in). The violent moments serve the role of showcasing just how brutal this world of crime really is, as well as forwarding the plot. These are hard, morally neutral men who do horrid things in the name of money and power. Scott does not try to glamourize the violence at all. If anything, the brutality in the film is jarring, not celebrated (like many Hollywood films).

Scott and McCarthy do not give in to the idea of a simple narrative either. The audience is expected to pay attention here and work a few things out for themselves. The overarching themes and ripe, layered dialog set the mood and provide the audience with everything they need to understand what is happening. It is refreshing to watch a Hollywood film that does not placate its narrative. This could have easily just become yet another average-man action film. The lawyer’s world is dissolving around him. The cartel even goes as far as to start murdering his friends and associates and kidnaping his fiancée. He tries to dig himself out of the hole he is in, but there is nothing he can do. He can only accept his fate. If this were a typical Hollywood film, he would have somehow found a way to fight back against the cartel, rescuing his fiancée, and there would have been big action scenes filled with suspense. Again, this was never that film.

The Counselor plays a bit like a parable with the message warning about the trappings of green and instead to take stock of what is truly important in your life (love). The lawyer has a great life and a beautiful woman who loves him and who he loves, what else could he want? But there is always more. He is surrounded by men that have seemingly more, like his friend Reiner who lives in an exotic house, drives luxury sports cars, and dates glamorous women. Reiner seemingly has everything, and yet he spends most of his time with the lawyer talking about relationships and wanting love. Or Westray, the lawyer’s go-between with the cartel, when things go bad he can only say that he knew this day would come and that he should have left the game sooner but he stayed on too long anyway. The lawyer starts out in the luxury of a privileged life in El Paso (and seemingly jet setting across Europe) only to end up alone with nothing in a rundown dirty motel in Juarez. This is what greed does. It corrupts. The lawyer wants into this life, and yet those he engages to help him get a foothold seem to just want a simpler life but are stuck. They cannot stop. The lawyer learns this lesson through pain and loss.

The character of Malkina, Reiner’s girlfriend, seems like the epitome of evil. She has completely accepted who she is and what she wants (which is everything) never looking back. Unlike the lawyer, Reiner, and Westray who all have a foot in both worlds (so to speak) wanting the money and power but also wanting to maintain some sense of their own soul, Malkina has no soul, which gives her a edge in an ugly world. To her, nothing has meaning or worth except money and power, and thus she is willing to do anything to acquire them.

The lawyer’s fiancée Laura seems like the opposite. She genuinely seems good, but she too is corrupted by what money and power can give her. The opening scene of the film features just the lawyer and Laura in bed. They clearly love each other and are encased in light (in the form of well-lit white sheets). Even here, however, the lawyer is already starting to corrupt her. Then later, he pulls her in further with an extravagant diamond engagement ring (following a brilliant scene between the lawyer and the diamond’s seller).

Each of the principal characters showcases a different level of greed’s corruption. Scott and McCarthy have created a drama that ruminates on the ugly side of humanity, an evil that is within all of us (we only need give in). While flashy aesthetically, The Counselor is a film built on portentous conversations between well-drawn and played characters in an effort to get at the heart of evil in man (and the way back). Again, while flashy from a production standpoint, the film is not an action thriller taking place in the world of drug cartels. It is much more momentous and refreshing, and honestly demands multiple viewings to appreciate its high ambitions.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Ridley Scott has always been a master of visual filmmaking. And again with The Counselor he has delivered a film that is aesthetically very impressive. Working with a great script from Cormac McCarthy, he has made a film that feels like a narrative made in the same spirit as Before Sunrise and Pulp Fiction (though much darker) in that it is made up of a series of conversations that seem to take on a life of their own. One could even maybe call it a cross between these two films. Another comparison can be made by calling it a Hollywood version of No Country for Old Men, as it is in many ways very similar in style (which is no surprise as McCarthy wrote the novel for which the film is based). I think this is a brilliant film that has been greatly misunderstood by most people and hopefully will find its audience in the coming years.

Daniel Pemberton’s score plays an important role in The Counselor. Scott’s pacing is rather slow, as he gives the performances priority. Thus, Pemberton’s music takes on the role of supplying a sense of dread and dramatic tension to the film, accompanying the performances and tone, something it does well. Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography is top notch. The film is beautiful, even though it is partially set in very dirty and gritty places. The camera is smooth and mannered throughout, not a victim to the wave of hand-held work that has overrun all films trying to create a more realistic sense to their world and action. Wolski’s photography, and really the film as a whole, has a much more classic look and feel, prizing ambiance over stark realism. Arthur Max’s production design might even be better than Wolski’s work (which is saying a lot). His sets tell the audience who these characters are while also being incredibly aesthetically engaging. Max creates a world that is both fantastical and alluring while also ugly, dirty, and soulless.

If nothing else, The Counselor is filled with wonderful performances from both bit players and its leads. Goran Visnjic, Natalie Dormer, Ruben Blades (who is particularly good), Toby Kebbell, and Edgar Ramirez are each very good in very small roles. Rosie Perez and Bruno Ganz bring a lot to their small supporting roles, creating fantastic scenes. Brad Pitt is great as Westray, a man who is totally cool and confident (maybe even overly so). He presents himself as a sage, and yet seems to not listen to or take his own advice and falls victim to all the same vices he points out in others (though one could say: thus is human). Javier Bardem is electric as Reiner. He seems almost overwhelmed by the lifestyle he has acquired for himself, but by the same token cannot give it up. Of all the characters, there is a real honesty and frankness to him (even if it only an illusion). There is a sense, like with Westray, that he knows the music has stopped but he is still running around in circles just waiting to be expelled from the game. Cameron Diaz is good in the film as well. Malkina is the kind of character she does well with (similar to the high powered Christina Pagniacci in Any Given Sunday). Penelope Cruz does a good job playing off both the lawyer and Malkina, serving as a much more innocent character new to this life as Laura. Michael Fassbender is brilliant as the lawyer. He undergoes such a transformation from confident hot shot to a man completely broken and desperate as everything crumbles around him. What Fassbender does so well is translate each phase of the process dramatically and emotionally to the audience, each dire moment. The audience keeps hoping that maybe he will find a way to resolve everything, but it is already too late before the film even begins.

Summary & score: The Counselor is the rare Hollywood film that actually engages with its audience on a higher level, revealing truths about humanity, our world, and good & evil. It is ambitious, absorbing, grim, and (sadly) largely misunderstood. 8/10

No comments:

Post a Comment