Monday, March 24, 2014

The Counselor (2013): Looking at a Crime film from the Edge

The Counselor (2013)
dir: Ridley Scott
wr: Cormac McCarthy

The Counselor isn't so much a Ridley Scott film as a Cormac McCarthy film. The characters talk. And they talk and they talk. And they just keep talking. Meanwhile things happen. Suddenly, the things that are happening are tied to the characters, and we hope you've been paying attention to the little details that are dropped in the middle of otherwise meaningless conversations that are all about consequences.

Watching The Counselor is an odd experience. It has all the plot points, characters, and meaning of a typical drug thriller. But, in order to create something you haven't seen before, McCarthy crafted a movie where you're essentially looking at it from the side. Have you ever looked at a photograph? Have you ever tilted it so that you're looking at it indirectly? Notice how everything that you see in the photograph is there, but it is so distorted or obfuscated it ceases to look like itself. That's the style in which you're watching The Counselor.

The titular character, the unnamed Counselor, is desperate for some reason that lies outside the frame of this photograph. He wants to get married to Laura, who also wants to get married to him, and buys her a 3.5 karat diamond of decent quality.

But, that desperation causes the Counselor to get involved in...something illegal involving the flashy Reiner and his sultry seductive and cold new girlfriend, Malkina. Reiner hooks the Counselor up with Westray, who takes his money and promises a decent return on investment.

The actual something illegal is already in motion long before the movie actually begins. The movie opens with a guy speeding by on a motorcycle. Before the movie can reveal anything, there are also scenes of barrels of heroin or cocaine being put into a septic waste truck and filled with septic waste, and already on its destination to Chicago. Once across the border, there is an exchange of control over the truck involving the guy on the motorcycle, who had been arrested for speeding and released by the Counselor because the motorcyclist's mother is his client.

Malkina, Westray, and Reiner plan to heist the drugs from the other cartel by killing the motorcyclist and stealing the truck, which is again foiled by the cartel, who now blame the Counselor for having been involved in the whole thing due to the earlier bailing, and proceed to go after him, Laura, and Reiner. Meanwhile, Malkina flees the country and gets her revenge at losing the drugs by killing and robbing Westray, the guy who hired everybody involved.

Of course, that makes everything sound easy. But, The Counselor is tilted from the perspective of The Counselor. Virtually all of the dialogue happens in scenes that involve him. And those that don't involve Malkina in the briefest of forms. The Counselor knows nothing about what his money is actually doing, and nobody actually tells him anything in the course of the story. Repeatedly, they tell him that he should think about what he is doing, and warn him that every action has a consequence. Reiner repeatedly tells stories that involve actions which lead to unexpected consequences. Westray warns him that actions can bring bad news, and tells him stories of snuff films and their ties to the drug cartel. The Counselor's diamond dealer calls diamonds consequence diamonds because of the actions it takes to get them.

Almost none of the dialogue actually involves what is happening behind the scenes.

The Counselor is barely about what it's about. Sure, its an oblique version of a trashy drug deal movie. More than that, The Counselor is a critique on consumerism and capitalism. Westray tells The Counselor that the consumer is just as guilty as the provider for the consequences that happens as the product is created. Westray uses the concept of the snuff film, and says that any viewer of a snuff film creates a demand for that film, and thus is responsible for the murder of the girls who are sacrificed for the creation of the snuff film. The same is for the diamond, of which people have been murdered in order for The Counselor to create the perfect engagement ring for Laura.

Similarly, investors such as The Counselor are responsible for all the death that occurs to retain his ROI. He might not be a terrible guy, but his desire to make money for no effort directly kills at least one guy (the Green Hornet), and has the potential to ignite a drug war. He  doesn't want to know this when he invests, leaving the details to everybody else. Yet, that's the best possible outcome if his crew got away with their plan. In the end, his investment killed at least 7 people. Capitalist investors demand returns on their investments in stock prices and dividends, but fail to actually participate in making sure these returns are achieved in a humane or fair manner, leading to the broken system we have in place now.

If you don't watch The Counselor closely, you'll miss the plot. But, if you search for the plot, you might miss the moralizing. The morals of The Counselor are the point of the movie more than the actual actions of the movie. McCarthy is more interested in making the audience peer at itself. His refusal to obey the traditional forms of the heist movie, as well as his ability to insert recockulous stories and scenarios right in the middle of the movie, makes the movie a rough ride. It's almost like being sanded by a diamond-edged grinder. You're not meant to be able to passively enjoy the film, and you're not meant to respect yourself after watching the movie.

People are going to hate this movie. I understand that. It's rough. It's oblique. It's ugly. And it says things that people don't want to admit. But, the movie is a skilled, new, cold take on a crime movie that is uncompromising in its ideals. And, I kind of have to respect that. Plus, I like these brutally ugly I'm biased.

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