THE COUNSELOR (2013) - A Review Revisited
Now that we’re nearing the end of the year, and Oscar ballots are starting to be returned, I wanted to revisit a film that was unfairly vilified and widely written off when it opened earlier this year. That film is The Counselor.
Let me start by saying that earlier this year we kept seeing the trailer for The Counselor every time we went to the movies - and I hated it every time. I didn't get a sense of what the movie was about, the bland title told me nothing, and it just seemed like a lot of name actors (all of whom I consider overrated and/or uninteresting) involved with something seedy and none too compelling. It left me anxious for the film to come out, just so I wouldn't see the trailer anymore.
Now, stick with me as I digress to tell you that my personal definition of film noir is a film about a character who is driven to self-destruction by obsession. That obsession could be a woman, revenge, money - whatever. But it ends badly for the leading character (or characters).
So, I am pleased and surprised to report that The Counselor is a well done, and very bleak, modern noir. My wife was apparently more intrigued by the trailer than I was, and saw it on her own. She liked it enough to see it again, and take me with her. Despite my initial misgivings and disinterest, I'm glad to have seen it, but still wish it had had a better trailer.
Still, even if that had been the case, this is a film that is dark and bleak enough to have flopped with the best trailer in the world. Because The Counselor is a story about the amazing numbers of people who are complicit in the distribution, selling and, I'm talking to you, America, consumption of illegal drugs, which also makes them a party to incredible levels of violence and cruelty, both here and abroad. Like All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, a would-be teen slasher film we also saw earlier this year, The Counselor holds the ugly mirror up to America, and, perhaps not surprisingly, it seems America doesn't want to look at itself in the ugly mirror. Both films somewhat upend genre conventions. Both failed at the box office. But both films are worth seeing.
In many respects, The Counselor resembles one of my favorite noirs, Act of Violence (1948), in which Van Heflin's comfortable life is almost instantly turned upside down by a decision he made earlier, when he had been a prisoner of war. In that film, chaos comes in the form of Robert Ryan, who merely has to appear and Heflin's life implodes.
In The Counselor, Michael Fassbender is the title character (who has no name), a lawyer who makes a decision to get involved with a drug deal to make a pile of money - only to have things (of course) go horribly wrong, and all that piles up are problems and bodies. Unlike Van Heflin's character, who only had to worry about Robert Ryan, Fassbender finds himself in a situation in which he doesn't know who to trust, what to do, or where to go. He thought he was going to make some fast, big money; instead, he quickly winds up in over his head. For him, paranoia is just the first stop on a road that leads to sorrow and death. Late in the film, Ruben Blades character sums up Fassbender's situation (and offers up a good definition of film noir) when he tells him, "Life is not going to take you back."
It's a great line in what is actually a pretty great film. The performances are strong. A great deal of attention has been paid to details - a too-large shirt collar here, a dirty fingernail there. Multiple characters in multiple locations are presented in a way that keeps things clear, and keeps the story moving forward, in the very strong script by Cormac McCarthy. I even noted the nice, Saul Bass-like credits at the beginning of the film. All in all, a nice piece of work. Dark, yes. Depressing? Possibly. But still, a film that engages and perhaps provokes some thought. The Counselor is the film that the much more successful (and much, much more gorenographic) Prisoners (2013) wishes it was.
Despite the fact that The Counselor is a very dark and violent film, I personally don’t think it’s dangerous the way that something like Prisoners is. In Prisoners, the audience is meant to sympathize with, identify with, Hugh Jackman’s vengeful father. We’re supposed to root for him to get the (assumed) “bad guy” to talk, even if it means Jackman has to beat and torture him – which he does, at great length. Though it’s never stated as such, it’s clear that we’re supposed to believe that the hoped for ends (Jackman getting his kidnapped daughter back) will eventually justify the means (Jackman torturing the info out of the person he has kidnapped) used. Of course, in many respects, there is no difference at all between the “good guy” and the apparent “bad guy” in this scenario.
But in The Counselor, no one seems to be operating under any illusion that they’re doing anything other than something morally wrong - but financially lucrative. There may be no “good” character to root for, but we are at least spared the fraud of a villain pretending to be (or presented to be) a hero of any sort. The dark heart of the film was neatly summed up for me during John Leguizamo’s unbilled cameo, when his character explains that presence of a body in a barrel included in a shipment of drugs counts as a practical joke among drug smugglers. Does it need to be said that in any other context, such an item would count as a horror, not a joke?
Though, as stated above, I am not a fan of any of the actors in The Counselor per se, I thought they all did excellent work here. Cameron Diaz is open about her predatory ways – so open that those around her don’t seem to entirely believe her. Javier Bardem is in over his head and knows it, but is trying to enjoy the ride. Even Brad Pitt is good, with his nervous, ever-shifting eyes.
On the other hand, I am a fan of several of the actors in Prisoners, but, overall, they had little to do. Jackman rages. Terrence Howard stands around looking stunned. And Melissa Leo has to act through one of the worst, most amazingly fake “old lady” make-up jobs I’ve ever seen.
Prisoners tries to both build audience identification with a violent character, while at the same time giving the audience the “out” of being able to say they’re not culpable in any of the violence – just the crazy, violent individuals out there are.
But The Counselor implicates a whole lot of people in the business of making, shipping, selling, and using drugs – as well as those (like the Counselor himself) who protect and defend them legally. This is a much wider net, and one that’s harder for the audience to escape from. At one point in the film, Pitt’s character, Westray, asks the Counselor if he’s ever seen a snuff film. The Counselor answers no. Westray then asks if he would see a snuff film. Again, the Counselor says no. Westray replies, “You might want to think about that the next time you do a line.”