It’s as if Hollywood thought up the dream team of cast, director and Pulitzer prize winning writer, and said “now give us that Oscar worthy masterpiece”, and Cormac McCarthy nodded and then delivered a script that was unwittingly (or intentionally) the proverbial shocking middle finger to all the puritans. What they wanted was a sort of modern day ‘No Country for Old Men’… and perhaps we did too; but, here’s a warning and a lesson: be careful what you wish for.
A lawyer has embarked on a one-time lucrative drug deal job, mixing his potential fortunes with a collection of ‘high-class’ criminals whilst rubbing shoulders with the Mexican (and perhaps even Colombian) drug Cartels.
Not for sensitive viewers, the R-rating is appropriate. This is a ‘niche’ piece reserved in that vague modern cowboy-horror type stories, only it’s not a horror, it’s a crime thriller, and still something else entirely… – Know the direction of the wind before entering this storm. Come to think of it, if you love Quentin Tarantino’s work, you may want to give this a look. It’s a bit like QT’s work, but darker, deeper, more real and minus much of the blood splatter, and that uniquely QT outrageous and comedic elements, mostly.
The Bottom Line
To be honest, the characters are never allowed to take center stage over moving the story along, however, as expected, Michael Fassbender’s turn as the Counselor is the emotional heart of the film. If not for his honest and subtle performance, there would be no necessary anchor around which the rest all spins. Javier Bardem is an amusing scene stealer and Penelope Cruz evokes an even richer femininity than normal (she’s had her iffy roles of late, but I believe motherhood granted her extra portions of innocence and beauty exercised here). Brad Pitt’s character is never fleshed out (in fact few are) and Cameron Diaz I’ve always dismissed, but McCarthy could’ve written this role solely with her in mind as she’s the one who unexpectedly seems most at home – a rare thumbs-up from me (for her, despite Angelina Jolie being the original choice).
The problem this film experienced was that it went through the typical Hollywood marketing mill and thus seemed to promise something that was never realised, but to be honest, from the onset, with the ensemble cast and talent involved, it was almost inevitable.
The warning signs were there, perhaps not glaringly, but still evident. Another problem is that audiences are/were never really going to see this film in context, the way it should be viewed. What most were expecting was a classy, well written and impeccably acted, stylish and dark thriller with automatic Oscar contention (and the trailer compounded this promise), but what we received is in actual fact a complimentary commentary piece of segmented story that, had it been a book, would nestle alongside Author Cormac McCarthy’s other works, most notably his famed Border Crossing Trilogy. This, is really the world we’ve been roped/yanked into, and very unapologetically so. It’s a world McCarthy has been studying and exploring for some time, infused in his body of work; and its interesting to note the evolution of it into what it is today.
In the previous McCarthy inspired cinematic offering, the Coen Brother’s adaptation of his novel ‘No Country for Old Men’ (wherein we find those warning signs I alluded to earlier), there’s a very clear and dark theme prevalent, enveloping the story like a hand – a suffocating death grip… and in that instance, the darkness and evil took on the shape of a man, the almost blatantly typical antagonist in Anton Chigurh. That character was written more as an entity than a person – the embodiment of an ideal which traditional values could not contend with, something the old sheriffs and lawmen (the old men) were unfamiliar with in a sense. But they were fully aware that whatever it was that was coming could not be stopped. And to think, that story was set in the early eighties… Now we move on to the present day The Counselor, where that darkness, that evil entity that threatened, has encroached and made itself at home, only this time it’s not one character, it’s a faceless collective; and what’s even scarier, is that it could even be inherent, a flaw within the human condition. Of course, such a thing would not make for a pretty picture.
In a way, in this film, Cormac McCarthy shows his hand, one card at a time, and then when you acknowledge his winning hand, and accept it, only then does he taunt you – because there’s still a bare glimmer of hope that if you (the audience member) plays the right game, by luck he will fold. But he doesn’t, he lays his cards down slowly and takes everything.
I’ve focused on McCarthy here because it is so plainly his work, though Ridley Scott did a great job in capturing the style – in ways even the Coen Brother’s would be proud. The thing of it is, is that McCarthy’s style is very much an acquired taste. His books have a pacing and feel all their own which for a first time reader will be hard to get into, to the extent where they may even abandon it entirely – so that if you miss the book’s unique groove, it will take a while to find it at all. That being said, his laid back run-on style (with no quotation marks) is an experience that mirrors the vast arid landscapes of stark beauty in which they’re set. If there is beauty to be found in this film, then it’s in its self-awareness and, as mentioned, unapologetic philosophy. McCarthy has this almost grating knack for handling issues of life and death like two random pieces of stones in his hand that he just happened to find alongside the road.
This film is not for everyone; it’s like watching a painter render an intriguing work, but whilst watching him you realize he’s painting with his own blood on his last canvass. We’re left somewhere between smitten and disgusted – as one character expresses more in body language than words as he describes his girlfriend’s weird exploits.
If there’s a resonant message to all Cormac McCarthy’s work, it’s that the worst kind of evil, is the indifferent kind.
The major flaw of this film though, is in the lack of knowledge of the characters, particularly the pseudo ‘puppet baited’ protagonist, which inevitably betrays the story, but I have a sneaky feeling McCarthy did this on purpose – because its too simple to be an oversight… and like I mentioned before, this film is very self aware -with quotes like “Sin is a choice” and “… living in a false belief”.
In essence, the negative sentiment around this film is due to it throwing everything back at our faces (about what we like and are entertained by), and us being upset about seeing the monster in the reflection of what ultimately sticks.