From the bloated and steroid-pumping (Pain and Gain) to the impotently philosophising (Only God Forgives) and the torturously long infomercials about, like, just five ordinary boys from Worcestershire just makin music and doin wot they love, like, (One Direction: We Are Code), 2013 has disgorged all shades of bad cinema. With these rates, you don’t have to burrow as far back as Pledge This in the 100-odd year history of cinema to learn that for every Holy Motors, there’s a Plan 9-level abomination so bent on pain infliction and how-did-this-get-made confusion that nobody is secretly enjoying it. In short, when you’re stepping up to the soapbox to denounce The Counselor as the worst film ever made, you would want to have a steadfast, objectively sound reason to back your claim.
Salon’s head critic, Andrew O’Hehir, is among detractors inadvertently complimenting all the Plan 9s From Outer Space with that very precarious branding. Although his attack is more caustic than most, skeletally, it’s more or less parallel to the mainstay of hatred The Counselor has accrued. The argument runs something like: the collaboration between Ridley Scott, Pulitzer Prize winner Cormac McCarthy and five actors so distinguished they’re recognisable on a last name basis (emphasis added but I’m still a few hundred adjectives short of the hallmark hysteria) should, by the power vested in filmography, Pitt and Pulitzer, necessarily churn out some No Country-calibre masterpiece.
Well The Counselor is no No Country, but the resounding criticism is a textbook case of disappointed cinemagoers seeing what they want to see: a directionless, abhorrent mess in lieu of a Coen-esque would-be Oscar nominee. O’Hehir analogises the whole film to a McBurger served by two Michelin-hatted chefs, but in doing so he opens the gateway to a perfectly obvious rebuttal: an ingredients list doesn’t dictate the recipe. In The Counselor’s case, it’s overwhelmingly the critics, not the movie itself, who assume the film wants to be a polished Oscar frontrunner of a masterpiece. And when those critics aren’t getting the film they promised themselves, they seem so bent on criticising The Counselor’s every abstraction from their own barometer of expectations that they forget to see it for the dark and subversive and at-times funny piece of work it truly is.
Well call to question McCarthy’s prestige all you want, or accuse the actors of pompous gaucherie as they wander through his screenplay, but at least be aware that The Counselor isn’t trying to be anything other than a movie with metaphors so trite that is basically opens as the lavish and icy Malkina (Diaz), with a leopard print tattoo covering back and shoulder, sips a cocktail while watching a house cheetah chase down a hare in the Ciudad Juarez prairie. There’s an excess of self-righteous philosophising ejaculant, sure (and we’ll get to that). But there’s also a scene where a mother sits bolt upright in her prison cell bed just after her son is killed. In fewer words: don’t take this too seriously, and don’t go labelling it a tacky and deflated iteration of Body Heat when it so obviously wants to defy that expectation. Or, as Pitt’s shady cowboy middleman, Westwray, advises Fassbender’s Counselor: “Maybe I should tell you what Mickey Rourke told what’s-his-face.”
Another hallmark symptom of No Country syndrome sees critics running to the hills with denouncements of the The Counselor as illogical, intangible and untraceable. Again, this argument shows a stubbornness to give The Counselor a pass on the same kind of abstraction-rife storytelling techniques you might find in wayfaring world cinema. (Although, apparently those arthouse afficionados won’t extend their flexibility to Hollywood’s studio output, no matter how subtly intelligent and un-Hollywoodish it is). The Counselor is less bent on a single, palpable plot than illustrating a cruel, incensive and noirish world where, if a character mentions a death trap that’s essentially a tightening, razor wire noose, you can bet it will turn up later. When a $20 million drug deal with the Cartel goes wrong, there’s no point in fearing death: it’s a given. It’s who you take with you that matters now, as several characters reiterate in scenes that have collected labels like preachy and philosophising. While these complaints run rampant, finer details, like a body being welcomed to America in a sewage tank where it will inevitably be relayed around the waste depot circuit for an indeterminate time, or a drug mule calling a family Mexican border-runners ‘illegals’, fly overhead, unnoticed.
But even if there is a septic truckload of pontificating, the film still represents a shift for Ridley Scott from Prometheus and Black Hawk Down to what is arguably a more sophisticated filmmaking style – one where every behind-your-back plot point isn’t served on a silver platter of explicitness. It’s intelligent and it demands intelligence, and, hey, here’s a scary thought: maybe The Counselor belongs on the screens of Palace and Dendy because of it. At any rate, Scott, ever the master of setting, injects The Counselor with campy moments, less straight-facedness and vivid palettes previously unseen throughout his filmography, and so surely its flamboyancy is something to be celebrated.
To illustrate this point, let me quote Tom Waits at a watershed moment in his career, where he swapped the sombre bluesiness of Blue Valentine and Heartattack and Vine for the sincere and quirky rhythmic ardour of Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs. “Your hands are like dogs, going to the same places they’ve been. You have to be careful when playing is no longer in the mind but in the fingers, going to happy places. You have to break them of their habits or you don’t explore; you only play what is confident and pleasing. I’m learning to break those habits by playing instruments I know absolutely nothing about, like a bassoon or a waterphone.” The doggish stagnation that’s preventing critical circles from appreciating the newfound envelope-pushing of one of what is surely one of Hollywood’s most diverse and trustworthy working directors is, therefore, counter-productive to say the least. For if trumpeted artists never ditched their known trades and pioneered into the very kind of stylish atmospheres and storytelling techniques that The Counselor forecasts, they would never have moved beyond Dubliners and onto Ulysses, or beyond The Shining and onto Eyes Wide Shut.
Finally, there’s a widespread wont to label The Counselor reprehensibly sexist because, obviously, the misogyny of a director’s male characters are precisely at one with the director’s worldview, right? And that’s why films like Kill Bill are abhorrent. That’s it, right? Well, via Malkina, who’s probably instigating Reiner and company’s backstabbing as he and the Counselor chat about how much women need fixing, feminine empowerment is as engineered into the film as Alien or Thelma and Louise. Between taunting priests for fun, Malkina demonstrates that Reiner, Westwray, et al can pontificate vice and virtue, fate and the gynaecological all they want, but it all falls flaccid when they’re so unsuspecting of the very person backstabbing them. In that same prairie-side opening scene she gives Reiner the golden shred of pomposity: “I don’t miss things. To miss it is to hope it’s coming back.” In the very last scene, she talks to another male counterpart about how much she misses her wayward pet cheetah. So either she’s had a slapdash about face, or she was spoon-feeding Reiner every last minutiae of the illusory, needs-fixing accessory he wanted her to be.
What is surely, then, the most pointed reminder of Malkina’s sabre-toothed ferocity is inevitably The Counselor‘s most gawked at and misunderstood sequence. The Counselor plays by the rule that the key to Reiner’s heart are expensive loafers, kimonos and his gaudy, phallocentric automobile. Instead the most explicit expropriation of the crown of Reiner’s machismo, all audiences see is Malkina having sex with the windshield of his Ferrari California.