Welcome to the first installment of Forgotten Gems Friday: an ongoing series of articles intended to cast a spotlight on some of my favorite little-seen films. When I first pitched the idea to the PopChomp staff, the first film I proposed was a movie I originally hated. But Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy’s The Counselor has recently become one of my favorite American films of the last ten years. What exactly prompted this one-eighty degree turn? Look on, my faithful readers.
When I first watched The Counselor in a mostly empty Bay Ridge multiplex, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was supposed to expect. I’ve revered Cormac McCarthy’s prose ever since I read No Country for Old Men in advance of the film, so his screenwriting debut was worth the price of admission alone. But there was another big name on the poster that gave me pause for thought. Although Ridley Scott’s finest work is nothing to scoff at — Alien, Blade Runner, and the underrated Matchstick Men among others — his undeniable directing chops rest entirely on the strength of the material, which is why his filmography seems so uneven. Plus, ever since Ridley adopted Woody Allen’s “one-movie-a-year” production line in the early 2000s, his eye for quality material isn’t as sharp as it used to be (How anyone could have looked at the Prometheus shooting script without instantly throwing it in the trash is beyond me.)
Upon first viewing, The Counselor seemed like yet another example of Scott rushing into production with a lousy screenplay. The theatrical cut felt like a movie that couldn’t decide if it wanted to be a Hollywood thriller or an existential art film. Moreover, it arrogantly occurred to be that McCarthy should stick to novels and leave screenwriting to the experts, as though the unproduced screenwriter addressing you is qualified to offer career advice to Cormac Fucking McCarthy. Back in those days, I possessed the unfortunate tendency to treat movies like standardized tests: Scott and McCarthy had made too many “mistakes.” Thus I declared The Counselor an ambitious failure, but a failure nonetheless.
On the other hand, I couldn’t help but marvel over the fact that a major studio like 20th Century Fox was bold enough to release a movie as bizarre as The Counselor into multiplexes. This is a film in which a major character is killed by a battery-powered strangulation device that automatically tightens around your neck until it slices through your carotid arteries and releases a geyser of blood onto any unfortunate bystanders. This is also a film in which Cameron Diaz sits spread-eagle on a Ferrari and rubs her genitals against the windshield, much to Javier Bardem’s hilarious expression of confused horror.
Who’s ready for some popcorn?
Even though I didn’t like The Counselor initially, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And although the film was largely panned upon its release, The Counselor still received impassioned plaudits from select critics and filmmakers worldwide (including Edgar Wright). Naturally, these isolated calls for support increased after the release of Ridley Scott’s extended director’s cut. (Sound familiar?) This small minority of Counselor fans willing to twist my arm until I finally gave in an rented the extended cut two years after the theatrical release. As soon as I saw the film that Ridley Scott actually intended, I fell in love. So here’s why I consider The Counselor one of Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy’s finest respective achievements.
The titular Counselor (Michael Fassbender) is a decent, principled man who intends to take a sojourn into the dark and sinister world of drug trafficking. Counselor’s goal is to get in on that “one big score” so he can retire with his fiancee Laura (Penelope Cruz). He learns of the deal through the hedonistic Reiner (Javier Bardem), with whom Counselor intends to open up a nightclub with the drug money, and Reiner’s icy partner Malkina (Cameron Diaz giving her best performance in years). Counselor and Reiner set up the deal through a cynical middle-man called Westray (Brad Pitt): the one man in the story who understands the deadly consequences at stake for everyone involved. He explains coldly to the Counselor that — just as when Llewelyn Moss takes the satchel home in McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men — once you step into this world, you’re a citizen for life. It doesn’t even matter how deep your involvement becomes: the result is always a slow, irreversible death sentence. Thus the Counselor’s inevitable downfall is the tragic result of his naiveté, which will ultimately cost him everything he holds dear.
In one of his most dynamic and engaging performances to date, Michael Fassbender imbues the lead role with a palpable mixture of arrogance and innocence: a pretty-boy pinhead whose ultimate failing is his earnest belief that everything will turn out all right because he’s a good person. It’s Fassbender’s vulnerability that provides the film with the emotional undercurrent that could have otherwise resulted in cheap cynicism. Meanwhile, Bardem serenades the audience with his ripe mastery of McCarthy’s dialogue. Look out for several memorable cameos from the likes of Bruno Ganz, Natalie Dormer, Rosie Perez, Dean Norris, Toby Kebbel, and John Leguizamo. Lastly, Pitt is just as wry and witty as he was in Andrew Dominik’s modern crime classic Killing Them Softly, which I’ll probably write about for a future installment of Forgotten Gems Friday.
Now I know what some of you must be thinking: How could a film featuring that cast list fail to find an audience? Well, there’s no other way of putting it: The Counselor is weird.
See, Americans don’t like the word “weird,” and they certainly don’t like the phrase “you might need to see it more than once.” Americans prefer phrases like “limited time offer,” “comes with extra bacon,” and “a new Transformers movie.” But this movie wasn’t designed with the masses in mind. The fact that a roster of A-list celebrities plus a major Hollywood filmmaker took a chance on McCarthy’s non-commercial material deserves to be commended. I’m constantly complaining about the unwillingness of mainstream artists to use their platforms to challenge their audiences, and that’s exactly what The Counselor does from beginning to end. It even challenges your basic conception of what a good crime thriller is supposed to look, feel, and sound like. As Josh Olson brilliantly put it in his Trailers From Hell video, “nothing in The Counselor is subdued or predictable.” That’s a good thing.
However, The Counselor is not one of those “weird for the sake of weird” movies. This is a truly moral film about the amorality of the drug wars, and one of the few Hollywood movies to seriously address why this struggle has proven so disastrous. McCarthy has the courage to address the appallingly corpulent wealth of the one percent: the rich white individuals who bankroll and allow the cartels to thrive and profit year after year. “Have you ever seen a snuff film?” asks Westray. Counselor replies that he hasn’t and wouldn’t. After explaining how the underworld snuff market works, Westray concludes, “You might wanna think about that the next time you’re doing a line.”
Whereas most films absorb themselves in the gruesome violence on both sides of the border, The Counselor goes deeper and indicts the Bacchanalian billionaires who pay for all this carnage. Counselor’s participation in this world, no matter how fleeting, leaves him with the same drops of blood on his hands. Counselor fancies himself a man of principles without realizing that principles no longer matter in this world. Only the ruthless and the uncaring survive–like these adorable cheetahs who occasionally turn up in Herzogian moments like this:
If any of my faithful readers decide to rent The Counselor, I implore you: Watch the extended cut only. The extended version is twenty minutes longer but it feels twenty minutes shorter. The increased running time allows McCarthy’s writing to breathe. Scenes are rearranged and entire vignettes are added. Even Daniel Pemberton’s sly, mock-western musical cues are shuffled in this longer cut. All of these improvements enable the viewer to settle into the film’s blackly comic tone more easily. Entire characters are given more screen-time, most significantly Laura and Reiner. Cruz benefits the most because Laura is moderately developed in the extended cut, and you remember more of her performance besides her participation in the hilariously awful sex scene that kicks off the movie. Elsewhere, Reiner’s excessive lifestyle is probed further in the longer version. As Reiner imparts yet more of his sordid war stories onto the conservative Counselor, the viewer witnesses a man whose vices rob him of his ability to think clearly or rationally. Thus the “Ferrari scene,” among many other bizarre moments, is finally given a clearer thematic purpose. The extended cut is a more confident and coherent vision of a depraved and material-driven hell. The end result is as funny as it is tragic–a quality that all of the greatest stories possess.
So why does Ridley Scott do this? Why is he all too willing to butcher his movies for the theatrical release, only to roll out a far superior director’s cut when nobody is paying attention? Well, whatever you think of Scott as a director, I’m sure we can agree that he is an outstanding businessman. He’d rather compromise with studio heads than fight with them. Look at the most infamous example of Scott sacrificing his vision at the behest of his executives: Kingdom of Heaven. You probably remember Kingdom of Heaven as that Orlando Bloom movie that wasn’t as good as Gladiator (By the way, why does everybody hate Gladiator all of a sudden? It’s awesome. It’s a movie about a muscly shouty man who murders people for the entertainment of others. What’s not to like?) But much to the chagrin of the money people, Kingdom of Heaven was never trying to be Gladiator anyway. Scott delivered a thoughtful and powerful epic about the religious relations at the heart of the Crusades–a long and arduous conflict whose ramifications are felt more strongly than ever today.
Naturally, the men in suits thought we racist Americans would be too dumb to stomach all this — they probably had a point — so they forced Scott to cut the movie down to an unremarkable Gladiator rehash starring the most boring actor who ever lived. Although the roadshow version is far from perfect and fails to solve The Bloom Quandary, it’s worth seeing to witness the peak of Scott’s visual craftsmanship as well as his storytelling skills. William Monahan’s screenplay takes the historical context of the Crusades seriously, and yes, I’m sure it’s just as accurate as Braveheart wasn’t. But it’s only a movie, and the roadshow cut is a fine one at that.
Scott has since admitted that giving in to the suits on Kingdom of Heaven was a mistake. But at least I can understand the bullshit corporate logic of cutting down Kingdom of Heaven and repackaging it as Gladiator 2 (No, sadly I don’t mean the bonkers Nick Cave script.) But in the case of The Counselor, why bother? Did anyone at Fox seriously think it was going to set the box-office ablaze? The current studio system is designed to prevent movies like The Counselor getting made. It begins with Michael Fassbender declaring that Penelope Cruz has “the most luscious pussy in all of Christendom.” Movies with dialogue like that don’t make money; I write erotica for a living and even I don’t have the guts to write something that demented. By shredding the film for the attention-deficit masses, the studio obscured how strong The Counselor was on its own terms. Why would you even greenlight this kind of movie unless you were willing to embrace the weirdness and stand by it? Oh, that’s right: it’s because marketing people are morons. My mistake.
Rediscovering The Counselor was a yet another reminder that your emotional reaction to a work of art cannot always be trusted. Sometimes, you need to let a movie sit with you for a while before you judge it. But when the average film critic is expected to tweet his/her gut reaction a mere seconds after the lights go up in the cinema, is it any wonder that Hollywood has become so stagnant? So if you like your cinema a little “weird,” rent The Counselor: Unrated Extended Cut and decide for yourself. I predict the cult following around The Counselor will continue to expand, and I hope this article contributes in some small way. Hollywood rarely makes films like The Counselor at the best of times, and it may never do so again unless we support original and offbeat movies like this one.
So give it a chance. Maybe you’ll love it or maybe you’ll loathe it, but one thing is certain: you will never, ever, ever forget watching Cameron Diaz fuck that Ferrari. And neither will he.