Around four years ago, I was temporarily banished from my lab after another disastrous academic failure of mine. So disappointed with myself, I retreated into the campus library, and I read several books I previously bought but had never touched, and I was especially impressed by Cormac McCarthy’s “Suttree” and the Border trilogy. I was touched by a long but heart-wrenching life story told by an aging woman to the hero of “All the Pretty Horses”, and a philosophical conversation on good and evil between an old man and the hero in the middle of “Crossing” remained in my mind for a long time – I even dared to quote it in my first Far-flung correspondent review for the website of my late friend Roger Ebert, who was a long-time admirer of McCarthy’s works.
There are a number of good scenes evoking that experience of mine in Ridley Scott’s latest movie “The Counselor”, and they are accompanied with the well-written dialogues from McCarthy’s screenplay, but, unfortunately, the movie itself is not a compelling experience on the whole. Although I was less bored than others at the screening during last night and my ears paid attention to what its characters said, I found myself impatient and baffled about the pedestrian narrative occasionally punctuated by the morbid moments of brutal violence and black humor. I appreciated the efforts and skills put behind the movie for presenting an inexorably ruthless chaos we can expect from McCarthy, but I was left with a hollow feeling in the end, and that was not enough for me.
During its opening scene which feels peaceful and normal compared to the subsequent dark scenes to come, we are introduced to its unnamed hero who is always called ‘Counselor’ by others in the movie. Counselor(Michael Fassbender) is in his clean white bedroom with his girlfriend Laura(Penélope Cruz), and, after their sweet talk under the white sheet, he gives her a nice sexual pleasure as a man who sincerely loves her. He is going to marry her sooner or later, and he even flies to Amsterdam to buy a diamond for her wedding ring. The one he chooses looks very expensive, but he does not care about the price as long as his chosen jewel suits her well.
And that is the beginning of how he falls from bliss to desolation. He needs more money to buy that ring and other things, so he decides to participate in a drug business over the Mexico-US border, which is handled by his corrupt and hedonistic friend/partner Reiner(Javier Bardem). Reiner warns Counselor of the possible risk in this dangerous business, and so does Westray(Brad Pitt), the other guy who works as a ‘middle man’. I must confess that I do not have any clear idea on how he works or what position he is in, but that does not matter to the screenplay, for this character solely exists for 1) giving customary warnings to our hero and 2) foretelling what kind of horrible things may happen later.
The movie is also vague and abstract about what Counselor agrees to do for this business or how he suddenly gets himself in a big trouble. All we know clearly is that Reiner’s scheming (and kinky) girlfriend Malkina(Cameron Diaz) is mainly responsible for this trouble, and she has some plan revolving on a septic truck which crosses over the border and then is moved around here and there in US. Its tank is filled with not only the barrels containing drug but also the sewage for hiding them, and that takes me back to when I once joked that Cormac McCarthy’s elegant prose would make even a cesspool look beautiful – I guess this is how I pay a small price for my cheap joke.
Without knowing about Malkina’s scheme at all, some powerful dangerous guys in Mexico seem to think Counselor, Reiner, and Westray are behind the botched business operation. Mexican guys are going to do whatever they should do to keep their business looking intact and invulnerable, and Counselor finds himself being helplessly stuck to a grim course heading to the inevitable point as violence and death keep happening around the story. The movie has several moments of shocking violence, and one of them is a gruesome scene involved with a special wire noose; once it is hung around the victim’s neck, it keeps tightening around his neck second by second, and the consequence is not a pretty sight to say the least.
While it certainly does not feel tedious as we observe all these things and try to guess what is exactly going on in the story, the movie weirdly lacks the momentum to drive its plot despite its good moments. The director Ridley Scott tries as much as he can do with McCarthy’s screenplay as a visual storyteller, and his slick end product has the clear and distinctive sense of various locations including that bleak landscapes of the Mexico-US border region, but the story merely plods along its predetermined path while keeping confounding us. I respect its refusal to reach to the climax near the ending, but I do not think that is satisfying or rewarding in spite of a restrained but merciless gut punch it delivers as promised.
Most of the cast members acquit themselves well despite thin characterization. Michael Fassbender is smooth and tense as before, and Javier Bardem finds some humor in his broad character, and Brad Pitt savors juicy dialogues in his brief appearance. While Penélope Cruz is stuck in a thankless role, Cameron Diaz has the most fun as the cunning villain of the story; she willingly puts herself into a truly bizarre scene casually reminisced by Bardem’s character, and you will learn that it is sort of possible to have a sex with a sports car. It goes without saying that this is pretty weird, but you won’t be so surprised if you are familiar with McCarthy’s novels; in “Suttree”, one offbeat supporting character ‘raped’ watermelons, and, to be frank with you, I mused for a while on whether there is any appropriate English word for this odd behavior besides bestiality.
Considering the talents gathered behind it, “The Counselor” is a disappointing result, but its failure is an understandable one. McCarthy’s screenplay probably looked good and erudite on paper, but it does not make an engaging story on the screen, and that is why many of his novels except “No Country for Old Men” have been deemed as unadaptable ones. I heard that the screenplay is also published at this point, and now I wonder whether reading it may give me a better experience than watching the movie. As a matter of fact, I am now wishing for its novelization.
It seems to me the written word has a deeper impact than cinema—CM, whose No Country was the only book I read, writes strong prose, certainly—I would love to find and complete Suttree, as Roger’s favorite…
SC: Take your time, please.