It only takes one weak link to break a chain, and when The Counselor debuted in theaters in November, a once highly buzzed awards contender was reduced to entertainment rag cannon fodder rather unjustly thanks to the weak link of Cameron Diaz’s misguided performance in the film. Critics were divided, audiences were discouraged, and haters were ravenous — but to this author, much of the criticism is quite confusing in their points. If critics were to consider the tone of the film off-kilter, why not apply the same criticism to award-worthy oddities like Nebraska? If the film’s content was truly the issue, then why did audiences embrace downers such as Prisoners or Blue Jasmine?
Of course, the predictable pool of Oscar nominations is surely attributed to that of safety and necessity. While out-of-the-box candidates such as Gravity and Her will receive obligatory nominations, they’ll never be truly embraced by the Academy, allowing instead for the routine mix of charming character pieces, heart-wrenching melodramas, and zeitgeist-penetrating biopics to scoop up nominations all around. Meanwhile, as the horror genre is continually ignored for their incredible work in SFX, the Academy can sleep soundly knowing that legitimately unique cinema will not be given the satisfaction of critical embrace, at least not during its initial release.
Yet, the world keeps turning, and the times keep changing. Now, the lifespan of a film is no longer confined to the criticism of theatrical release. Rediscovery, it seems, has been a bitch to the Academy, turning many of their big winners into mundane or almost offensively predictable dreck while many of the transgressive and interesting films have been championed by generations to come as seminal works of art. It would be of no surprise if time were to be equally as kind to a film like The Counselor, where the philosophy of human nature is as ugly as the men that inhibit said nature.
The Counselor is not the kind of film you expect from the talent associated; it’s a film about a con that’s disguised as a crime film. It is never truly about the crime, nor is it particularly about the titular character, despite both being equally necessary to the narrative. The Counselor is like a magic trick, using intense and sometimes eloquent conversations about philosophy, consequence, and human nature while distracting you from the all-too-obvious wheels set in motion. And as with all things in The Counselor, once the actions are done, the fate of those involved in sealed, and it’s never pretty.
In some ways, the film is a parable in disguise, with the temptations too great even when a fate worse than death is wagged in the face of the tempted. The devil in question shows its face in many forms, whether it’s the jewel dealer talking about the perfections within imperfection, the showboating drug dealer with lavishness beyond bounds or the mysterious middleman whose dangerous, fly-by-night lifestyle gives off the vibe of a fearless outlaw. Motivated by greed, love, and power, this lowly lawyer plays as a surrogate for the vulnerable common man, losing his soul for the smallest sin.
Nevertheless, The Counselor doesn’t deal with devils, but rather, a far more terrible creature: man. Time and time again in the film, the script from Cormac McCarthy shows not only the horrifying lengths at which men will go to punish one another, but how senseless and strange the punishment may be. Depriving bodies of a resting place for entertainment, the specific construction of snuff films to implicate the viewer, and allowing the damned to see their fate unfold before their very eyes are all vicious acts. But when given the chance to explain himself to the very cartels that put a target on his back, The Counselor does not speak to thugs or savages, but rather, understanding and well-spoken men of high education and religious conviction. These methods may be cruel and stomach-turning, but they are far from new and the messages they send are only that much more effective.
It’s a simple dichotomy that defines the horror within The Counselor: violence that is senseless yet never nonsensical. It’s a parallel between high art and low lives, exotic sexiness and smitten beauty, the chess players, and the lowly pawns in their games. The statements made by the film may be challenging to interpret, but then again, why should McCarthy or Scott compromise their specific interpretation of the film for mass consumption? As always, show business relies on business to be deemed successful. As a storyteller, success is deemed by how well the moral of the story is conveyed.
Scott — who is often best known for sprawling and fascinating films like Legend, Blade Runner, and Gladiator — sways his vision in a completely different direction, one more commonplace in the films of Jim Jarmusch, Lars von Trier, and Michael Haneke. Scott’s penchant of masterfully choreographed violence is the only quality that stands in solidarity with his oeuvre, as his rogue gallery of carefully placed characters with various relativity to the linear storyline is McCarthy’s challenge to the veteran director. Scott broods, shocks, and sleazes his way through every abstract conversation to deliver what is possibly his most exciting film to date. Some of it is perplexing, some of it is scatterbrained, and, in the case of Cameron Diaz, some of it is even flat-out bad. But it’s Scott with a new lease on his craft, offering a passionate, unique filmmaking experience with a constraint that only a seasoned master can work within.
Does it have stars? Does it have a larger-than-independent budget? Does it have studio backing and distribution? Sure. But everything about The Counselor reeks of independent filmmaking, from the neverending building of its lacerating, layered wordplay to the freedom of its reckless reinvigorated director to the conscience subversion of audience expectations from start to finish. This is not a film for general audiences. This is a film for the curious and intrigued, all of whom are willing to see some big names put their reputation on the line to play in a small, complex sandbox for the world to see. It’s risky, original filmmaking, and even if it’s not award-worthy, it deserves your attention.
The Counselor is currently available in its Unrated, Extended Edition on HD Digital Video on Demand, and will be available on DVD/Blu-ray tomorrow, February 11th.