Tuesday, February 18, 2014

'The Counselor' Masterfully Depicts Lives of Men of Violence

WARNING: THERE BE SPOLIERS HERE, APLENTY

video
Reiner explains what a bolito is.

Ridley Scott’s “The Counselor” evokes a certain chill in the viewer, despite the fact it takes place on the searing Mexican border.

The film is a brilliant portrayal of men living lives of varying degrees of corruptness, from the entry-level outsider, the titular Counselor (Michael Fassbender), to the experienced professionals (such as Javier Bardem's character, the nightclub-owning Reiner, who lives in denial; and the jaded, looking-for-an-exit Westray, played by Brad Pitt), all the way up the chain to the drug kingpins, personified by the character named in the credits as jefe, played by the great Rubén Blades.

Cartels have been working with the Sicilian Mafia for some time; the recent bust in New York and Calabria reveals the Gambino and Bonanno families are in league with the Cartels, seemingly the middlemen between the big Mexican narcotrafficantes and the Ndrangheta.

This is a deeply psychological film about men who make their money on the street, specifically dealing in drugs. Playing out on the screen is a story masterfully written and brilliantly filmed (and scored); it showcases the psychology, actions and reactions of men of violence; they are not Mafiosi in this case, but they could be. Only street guys have to live with the horrors we witness in the film, the kind of grief on their souls.

Think about it: most of us are never in a position where killers are coming for us; they are actually hunting us down, right now; but not only us. All those we hold near and dear face the same threat, because of our actions. We ourselves make our beloved hostages to fate when we choose to step into the darkness.

 I think, at its essence, it also analyzes the concept of the "hero" in Western culture. The Amsterdam-based diamond seller describes this hero to us in a seemingly tangential piece of dialog, part of what drove critics and audiences nuts. (The diamond dealer is played by the great Bruno Ganz, who raised the level of quality in films like Unknown, the Liam Neeson action vehicle in which Ganz played a former member of the Stasi, the East German secret service; Ganz also delivered a masterful performance of a lifetime as Adolph Hitler, the one and only, in Downfall, a compelling German-language film about the final days of the Third Reich.) The hero of Western culture is the "man of God," the diamond dealer tells our protagonist, the Counselor.

Some who engage the film may be perplexed by stuff like this. Why, for example, does the diamond dealer say this -- or better, why did the writer include those words in this film? The payoff of the "man of God" theme I believe can be found near the end, when a Cartel kingpin is speaking to a despairing Counselor, trying to convince the heartbroken attorney that the very worst has already happened to him and that there is nothing to do about it but accept it through suffering -- until the Cartel kills him, which it will eventually, once it finishes toying with him.

The film reveals that some men are beyond redemption because of the decisions they've made. When the Counselor "gets in bed" with the Cartel, fully aware of the type of people he is dealing with -- he's been told about them throughout the film in all those heavy dialog scenes -- he knows what can happen. But it's a risk he's willing to take, for money. A quirk of fate angers the Cartel, which swiftly decides the Counselor and his two cohorts are responsible. The three are all dead the moment they decided to do business with the Cartel; that there will be a "quirk" in the relationship is a foregone conclusion because we can control only our own actions and decisions. And hell, sometimes shit happens...

Jefe explains this to the counselor in one of the most moving scenes in the film:

Actions create consequences, which produce new worlds, and they're all different... And all these world's heretofore unknown to us must have always existed... At some point, you have to acknowledge the reality of the world that you are in. There is not some other world... I would urge you to see the truth of the situation that you're in. It is not for me to tell you what you should have done or not done...

The world that you seek to undo the mistakes that you've made is different from the world where the mistakes were made....

Life is not going to take you back. You are the world you have created, and when you cease to exist this world that you have created also will cease to exist. But for those with the understanding that they're living the last days of the world, death acquires a different meaning. The extinction of all reality is a concept no resignation can encompass. And yet, in that despair -- which is transcendent -- you will find the ancient understanding that the philosopher's stone will always be found, despised and buried in the mud. This may seem a small thing in the face of annihilation, until annihilation occurs, And then all the grand designs and all the grand plans will finally be exposed and revealed for what they are...

Cormack McCarthy, the author -- and auteur -- of this darkly delightful, memorable film, has not read screenwriting books. I applaud him.

Not a lot of people have agreed with me about this film, which was largely panned and didn't do well at the box office. The opening weekend numbers -- all that counts today -- were "disappointing," as many reviews pointed out, basing this on audience-poller CinemaScore, which harshly graded the film, giving it a "D." Common criticism: too much dialog, some of it fake-sounding; scenes seem to be missing, so we have to connect the dots. God forbid an audience has to do some thinking in the cinema...

A recent Variety article brilliantly captures a striking parallel between this film and another of Ridley Scott's works that  is today hailed as a masterpiece: "Let us acknowledge that Ridley Scott has been down this road before. Thirty years ago, a little movie called “Blade Runner” met with a similar kind of bewilderment from the public and cognoscenti alike. It too was cold and austere — it was literally about robots — and, like a number of movies Scott has made since then, deeply indebted to the doomed romances and nihilist poetry of film noir. And now Scott has made another movie set in a violent dystopia from which there can be no escape — only in “The Counselor,” the future is now."


video
The Bolito in action - warning graphic violence.

“The Counselor," the article adds, "is bold and thrilling in ways that mainstream American movies rarely are, and its rejection suggests what little appetite there is for real daring at the multiplex nowadays. Let’s begin with the plot, which is intentionally abstracted as it is in that other great, fatalistic color noir, John Boorman’s “Point Blank.” Abstraction is always a risky move in a medium where audiences are accustomed to being spoon-fed every last detail, or at least given all the pieces of a puzzle they can construct in their heads on the ride home. In “The Counselor,” though, the pieces form an incomplete jigsaw — we know who’s double-crossing whom and why, but much of the “how” happens offscreen, not just out of sight but out of mind of Scott and McCarthy’s lawyer protagonist (Michael Fassbender), who fails to realize that he is but a jackrabbit, and there are serious predators lurking on the horizon."

"No Country for Old Men," a Coen brothers' film also based on McCarthy's work, was much more successful compared to this film, but nevertheless, "The Counselor" can be viewed as a continuation of the story in the sense that it depicts the world that Tommy Lee Jones’ laconic sheriff got a whiff off. And it poisoned his soul.

I  quote Variety again: “The Counselor” is a ravishing object — a triumph of mood and style, form as an expression of content, and dialogue that finds a kind of apocalyptic comedy in this charnel-house existence..." As for McCarthy's dialogue: "The wordplay is rich, rhythmic, clearly the product of someone in love with language and everything it can both conceal and reveal, but listen closely and you will also hear the espousing of a philosophy of the world, where love is a mirage and only in death may we find something like redemption."

A "bolito," described in the top video clip from the film, is a fictional construct of McCarthy's. Which is a relief because it would be quite troubling to see what happens to a guy stuck in one, say, walking down 34th Street and 7th Avenue around 5:30 p.m.

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