Sunday, October 27, 2013

Movie review: The Counselor

Note to readers: If you're following along with my story (novel? novella? short story?) "River," don't despair! I'm still working on it. Another episode will be forthcoming in the not-too-distant future. Whatever that means.

The Counselor is a collaboration from two formidable artists: director Ridley Scott and screen-play author Cormac McCarthy. That, right there, sets expectations high.

The cast is a powerhouse. Michael Fassbender (who was fantastic in Inglourious Basterds), Brad Pitt, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, and Javier Bardem. This is Bardem's second collaboration with McCarthy. Recall that he played the terrifying Anton Chigurh in the Coen Brother's No Country for Old Men. More about that flick later.

Ridley Scott's made some great flicks. My favorite is Alien (1979), one of the best ever science-fiction thrillers (and the flick that made Sigourney Weaver's career). McCarthy is one of the premier writers of our time, having written such classic literary novels as Blood Meridian and The Road. Artists like these aren't common. 

Judging from their previous works, you can expect the world they create to be beautiful, yes --but also appallingly dark.

Right on both counts! The Counselor is a suspenseful and profound flick that makes you stare into the face of an abyss that most of us would rather not know exists.

It's the story of an unnamed protagonist, the counselor. (McCarthy often refrains from naming his protagonists.) The counselor is a successful criminal attorney in El Paso who decides to dive into the dangerous and violent world of international drug trafficking. The counselor is in love with Laura (Cruz) and wants to provide her with a life of comfort and opulence. He partners up with a coke-dealing client, hedonistic Reiner (Bardem), and a shady finance lawyer named Westray (Pitt). Malkina (Diaz) is Reiner's sharp-as-a-razor girlfriend who always seems to be in the know about everything. She has cheetah spots tattooed down her flank. She owns two of the predatory cats, which she occasionally sets loose upon the local jack-rabbit population.

The complicated scheme involves making a big drug buy from a cartel in Mexico and delivering the cargo to a distributor in Chicago. "A one time thing," as the counselor imagines. If everything goes as planned, money changes hands and everyone walks away happy.

It doesn't work out that way.

The acting was great, Bardem in particular. The dialog is sharp and significant, with lots of profound exchanges.

"When the axe comes through the door, I'll already be gone. You know that," Malkina says. Reiner nods. "That's fair."

"It's not my fault," the counsellor protests. "It's just a coincidence." "These people don't believe in coincidences," Westray replies with matter-of-fact coldness. "They've heard about them. But they've never seen one."

And then there is the soul chilling exchange between the counselor and an unnamed, mobbed-up Mexican lawyer played by Ruben Blades. "There is no choosing," the lawyer says. "The choosing was done a long time ago. There is only accepting."

This is the stuff that keeps me coming back for more. McCarthy has few rivals when it comes to delivering maximum meaning with the minimum number of words. And when the lines are delivered by a cast that strong, it is positively sublime.

This is a well-crafted, suspenseful film that has you sitting in your seat, dreading what is to come. (Expectations are set early when Reiner describes the use of a ghastly assassination tool called a bolito.) And that's the way things go in McCarthy stories: Things are set in motion and there is no going back. Some of the characters accept it. Others fight their fates. Can you guess who gets the worst of it?

But at times the Shakespearean soliloquies seemed a bit forced and unlikely. And the movie's 111 minutes ran a bit long.

McCarthy's usual explorations of solipsism and predestination are powerfully presented. But, you know, The Counselor covers much of the same ground that was already covered by No Country for Old Men. In fact, the two stories have a lot of similar elements: a protagonist who sacrifices his woman in a futile attempt to save himself, a grizzly murder by garrote, a ruthlessly competent villain. The Counselor is different from No Country in that it is more talking, less action. But it's the usual McCarthy: despair in the face of the void.

I enjoyed the hell out of this flick. But it's not for everybody.

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