The Counselor by Ridley Scott

The Counselor by Ridley Scott

To give the simplest summary of the latest film from Ridley Scott and first-time screenwriter Cormac McCarthy, the Counselor (Michael Fassbender), deeply in love with his fiancée Laura (Penelope Cruz), tries to make a quick score in a one-time drug deal with Reiner (Javier Bardem), his girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) and middleman Westray (Brad Pitt). The deal backfires, and now The Counselor is wrongfully targeted by a Mexican drug cartel.

So Cormac McCarthy, Ridley Scott, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz and Cameron Diaz in a monumental cinematic failure, what happened?

Let’s be clear. The true author of The Counselor is Cormac McCarthy, not Ridley Scott. The artistic choices that McCarthy is attempting with the script are evident. He seems to have a disdain for exposition, as most of the scenes start and end before the typical story movements in a plot. What remains are these existential conversations that occur after a lot of the action has taken place.

McCarthy thinks that by removing story explanation, the film’s themes and ideas will float to the surface. The dialogue just drones on and on and on non-stop, having the viewer scratching their heads trying to keep up with it. As a result, there is no time to absorb the themes and ideas that McCarthy is trying to communicate. Audiences can tune to a different syntax (i.e. Yoda or Nadsat from A Clockwork Orange) and absorb heavy themes, but it is hard to do both at the same time.

Michael Fassbender carries the film sufficiently on his shoulder by adding as much believability as possible and together with Penelope Cruz make a good solid emotional anchor with their love story. Javier Bardem does his trademark brand of ‘psychotic hair acting’, fashioning a spiky hairstyle that looks like he is forcibly pulling out his hair with hair gel. Brad Pitt’s character just seems like an odd combination of character quirks that comes off more shallow. It is hard to buy Bardem and Pitt’s characters because gangsters would never philosophize and advise their underlings like old wise sages.

Cameron Diaz is the odd one out and it is hard to judge her performance. It took me a while to realize that Malkina character was from Barbados, and apparently she put on an accent for it, but it was undetectable. The role is something we never seen from Diaz before and it is a wild explosive left-field character. I just don’t know what to make of it. Every actor is delivering on what is written, but it’s hard to judge if it’s good or bad acting because the performances do not add up to the sum of its parts. The actors are not to be blamed.

The final conclusion I can draw is that director Ridley Scott and the cast believed that Cormac McCarthy has written something great and have proceeded to honor it by acting it out unedited as if it was Shakespeare. Had they been more critical about the screenplay and its mechanics, something more profound definitely could have been made. From what McCarthy is trying to say with these themes, he would have done better by just writing a philosophy paper about greed and corruption. As a bleak morality tale, it is not at all compelling.

The Counselor is not a film I would recommend people to see for leisure, but anybody with an interest in screenwriting should give it a watch to study the forensics and learn what not to do, even if you are a critically acclaimed novelist.

 

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The Grey by Joe Carnahan

The Grey

The Grey by Joe Carnahan

A man who has lost the will to live must save a group of men after a plane crash in the midst of Alaska. That is a compelling premise.

If you lost the will to live, is there any value in human life? How do you value someone else’s life? Is there even any point in running away when you are in the face of death?

The Grey asks these existential questions but doesn’t get bogged down by the weight of them. It externalizes these ideas into something entertaining: a survival film. And more importantly, the film doesn’t leave these questions unanswered. It manages to answer them from the point of view of Liam Nesson’s character, John Ottway. And if there’s one thing that Liam Nesson does really well, it is bringing gravitas to a role and a story, no matter how ridiculous the situation may be (i.e. in Taken where he singlehandedly takes on Paris. Or heck, even the scene in The A-Team where the team in a tank falling from the sky and he orders the team to maneuver the tank through firing out of its cannon).

The structure of the story is that of a philosophy thesis. These characters exist as viewpoints. Survival arguments between the characters are disguised existential arguments. One noteworthy scene is where all the men sit around in a campfire and share their personal stories, it works both as character development and on a thematic level establishes what they all have to live for as existential discussion. As for the wolves, I know nothing about wolves and their social behavior. I don’t know if they make sounds like a Tyrannosaur Rex or sneak up on people like ninjas as they’re portrayed in The Grey. And you know what? It does not matter one single bit. These are not real wolves. These are thematic existential wolves. Yes, they exist as an idea and they work like that of a movie monster metaphor.

As for the set pieces, they are brutal. They reportedly shot in -40 degree weather and it looks it. We feel the pain of these deaths. The balance between the philosophical and the survival film tropes make it a thrilling experience.

The A-Team and Smoking Aces was both fun fluff, but The Grey is levels higher and it shows maturity and improvement on the filmmaker’s behalf. This is the best Joe Carnahan film has made yet.

I’m all for not hurting animals, but there’s something really badass about watching Liam Nesson punching a wolf. The Grey is aware of its popcorn movie layer though despite of that has much higher ambitions than to simply entertain, it chooses to say something deep instead. And it succeeds. Or else they could have just named the movie – Liam Nesson: Wolf Puncher.