Why Ridley Scott’s ‘The Counselor’ Deserves to be Ranked Alongside ‘Alien’ and ‘Thelma and Louise’

Reader, you have been lied to! Film history is littered with unfairly maligned classics, whether critics were too eager to review the making of rather than the finished product, or they suffered from underwhelming ad campaigns or general disinterest. Let’s revise our takes on some of these films from wrongheaded to the correct opinion.

When Ridley Scott‘s “Blade Runner” was released in the summer of 1982, it met with lukewarm responses from audiences and, though there were outliers, largely mixed reviews. (Pauline Kael’s snide dismissal stuck in Scott‘s craw to the point that he continued to quote it in interviews 40 years later.) Scott had the last laugh, as it only took around 10 years for everyone to come around and acknowledge “Blade Runner” as a classic, and given how wrong the critics were initially one might think they would be careful about underestimating Scott again. Yet when Scott made what was arguably his best film since “Blade Runner” (or at least since “Thelma and Louise”) in 2013, history repeated itself as the director gave the world another audacious masterpiece — and was once again met largely with indifference.

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That film was “The Counselor,” and like “Blade Runner” it came and went from theaters with little fanfare, barely covering its modest $25 million cost in spite of a cast that included Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz, and, reuniting with Scott for the first time since his star-making turn in “Thelma and Louise,” Brad Pitt. Although the film had a few champions like Manohla Dargis in The New York Times, Scott Foundas in Variety, and Richard Roeper in the Chicago Sun-Times, their voices were drowned out by the vitriol of the opposing point of view; Salon reviewer Andrew O’Hehir went so far as to call it the worst movie ever made, while Mark Kermode was content to merely label it one of the worst of its year.

In recent years some reappraisals have begun to emerge, most notably by Scott Tobias in a column where he argues in favor of adding “The Counselor” to a “New Cult Canon.” Hopefully now that “The Counselor” is 11 years old — about the same amount of time it took for “Blade Runner” to really catch on in the public consciousness — the reevaluations and reconsiderations will become more frequent and widespread until the revisionist opinion is no longer considered contrary at all but, as became the case with “Blade Runner,” the overwhelming consensus. For “The Counselor” is not just a movie that deserved better than it got; it’s one of the great films of the century so far, and one of the cinema’s most harrowing depictions of evil this side of “Night of the Hunter.”

It also gave Scott one of the best pieces of material he ever had to work with in the form of an original screenplay by novelist Cormac McCarthy, whose tale of a hapless lawyer (Fassbender) in over his head on what’s intended to be a simple drug deal yields a chilling meditation on greed in a pitiless world that feels completely in line with the sensibility of the guy who wrote “Blood Meridian” and “No Country For Old Men.” The screenplay was a target of some controversy when the film was released, as critics of the film felt McCarthy’s dialogue-heavy script somehow broke with traditional screen dramaturgy in an unforgivable way; Dargis, meanwhile, agreed with the naysayers that McCarthy seemed to never have read a screenwriting manual in his life, but she correctly considered this to be one of the movie’s strengths.

An unusually large number of scenes are devoted to characters lecturing the protagonist (who is never referred to as anything other than “counselor”), and most of these lectures are warnings, musings on the impossibility of truly grasping the limitless potential for depravity when abundant money and power intersect with the lack of a moral compass. The counselor heeds none of these warnings, and when an unfortunate coincidence lines up with the Cameron Diaz character’s ambition to hijack the counselor’s drug deal for herself, he and virtually every other character in the movie are forced to experience or at least witness the philosophies espoused by the various supporting characters in action. The first two-thirds of “The Counselor” are filled with passages in which we’re asked to imagine the worst that mankind has to offer; in the final third, we don’t have to imagine anymore.

The nihilism that “The Counselor” gives way to in its final stretch is both the source of its power and its difficulty for some audiences; a recurring complaint in contemporary reviews such as those by Todd McCarthy and Kenneth Turan is that the movie is aggressively unpleasant and soulless. Yet “The Counselor” is neither; in fact, its very soulfulness is what gives the brutality its impact — if this were truly a movie that didn’t care about anything or kept an ironic distance, there would be no sting to the carnage inflicted upon its characters.

The fact that the counselor and virtually all the other main characters get, in a sense, what is coming to them, doesn’t provide the audience with any kind of sadistic pleasure; this is thanks partly to the complexity of McCarthy’s script, in which nearly everyone (with the possible exception of Diaz’s near-satanic Malkina) has some redeeming facet, and partly to Scott’s sly skill when it comes to casting — he knows we want to project ourselves onto gorgeous movie stars doing fun things, so he seduces us into identifying with them, and by the time we realize we shouldn’t it’s too late.

THE COUNSELOR, Michael Fassbender, 2013. ph: Kerry Brown/TM and ©Copyright Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved./Courtesy Everett Collection
‘The Counselor’©20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection

The key to McCarthy and Scott’s moral seriousness lies in the brief moments of collateral damage that “The Counselor” depicts, instances in which people who presumably have not chosen to enrich themselves via crime are nevertheless destroyed by the consequences — some predictable and some unforeseen — of the actions taken by Fassbender, Diaz, Bardem, and Pitt’s characters. These moments — the death of a motorist who happens to be driving on the freeway at just the wrong time, a pan across the families of Mexican citizens who have gone missing as a result of the cartels’ business, a shot of a DVD with a handwritten label that contains a snuff film showing the death of the one truly innocent character in the movie — give “The Counselor” a true sense of terror. It, not “Alien,” is Scott’s greatest horror movie; the terror cuts deeper and lingers longer than the violence of a more conventional horror film, because it’s the terror of a world comprised of total chaos. Being good will not save you in “The Counselor,” and being bad won’t either — in the end, the best you can hope for is luck.

This horror movie component of “The Counselor” also justifies some of its less plausible set pieces, such as a scene in which a man working for Diaz goes to absurdly complicated lengths to set up a trap for someone he needs to kill, rigging a wire across a road to decapitate the man as he rides by on his motorcycle — a plan that depends on the guy riding along at just the right height (what if he looks down or up?), no one coming along before him or at the same time, etc.

On a thematic level, the scene works as part of McCarthy’s presentation of a fatalistic universe in which so much is left to chance, but it works at a more primal, visceral level as well. In order for McCarthy and Scott to leave us with the sense of absolute evil that hangs over “The Counselor” like a cloud, it isn’t enough for people in this movie to be killed. They have to be torn apart into pieces, dismembered, and in the case of one unfortunate soul, literally tossed away like garbage. It’s hard to imagine anyone in this movie passing away peacefully in their sleep of old age, with the possible exception of the jewelry dealer played by Bruno Ganz. Everyone in “The Counselor” dies in a state of terror and trauma, and those who don’t — like the counselor himself, left to decay in a squalid motel room as he reckons with the ramifications of all that has wrought — are perhaps the least lucky of all.

In spite of this grim worldview, it must be noted that “The Counselor” is, before things take their horrific turn, a very, very funny and entertaining movie. Some of this comes from the sheer delight that comes from the verbal dexterity of McCarthy’s dialogue, which is filled with witty philosophical exchanges that feel like the work of a deranged love child of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche and Preston Sturges. One common complaint leveled at “The Counselor” is that people don’t really talk this way, which is a little like criticizing “Spider-Man” for its lack of fidelity to accepted principles of araneology; it’s precisely the elevated nature of the dialogue that gives “The Counselor” a timeless, archetypal aura.

Some of the humor and entertainment value also comes from the movie’s vigorous interest in sex and sexual talk, as exhibited in the opening scene between the counselor and his girlfriend. They roll around in bed engaging in graphic sex talk after making love (the talk is even more graphic, and funnier and more erotic, in Scott’s extended cut available on Blu-ray and some VOD platforms), and Scott’s staging immediately establishes the dual worlds of sex and death that the movie will focus on; although the content of the scene is purely romantic and sexual, placing all the action under the blankets creates the eerie sense that we’re looking at corpses under a sheet in a morgue.

THE COUNSELOR, from left: Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz, 2013. ph: Kerry Brown/TM and ©Copyright Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved./Courtesy Everett Collection
‘The Counselor’©20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection

After this “The Counselor” is preoccupied with sex nearly as much as it is with death and torture, with the Javier Bardem character in particular holding court with a series of tales about sexual escapades while Pitt repeatedly references his own obsession with women — an obsession that will ultimately lead him to a very gory end. Bardem’s stories culminate in the film’s most infamous set piece, a flashback to Malkina pleasuring herself on the windshield of a sports car. McCarthy and Scott never tell us if this really happened or if it’s just a figment of Bardem’s imagination, but either way it serves the same purpose: to show that Bardem sees the woman he is with as someone of almost supernatural appetites who will most likely never be fully satiated by what he can give her. (He turns out to be right.)

This gets to the heart of what “The Counselor” is really about, which is consumption: consuming material goods, consuming other people, consuming drugs, and how the most evil among us — who also sometimes happen to be the most financially successful, which enables them to consume even more — can never consume so much that they’re full. It was a worthwhile subject for a movie in 2013, and feels even more relevant now. So why was “The Counselor” so hated, and why is it still treated by all but a few as a minor footnote in Scott and McCarthy’s careers? “No Country For Old Men” also had a certain degree of verbose philosophizing, and a similarly harsh sensibility, yet it was a hit and an Oscar winner.

Perhaps it has something to do with the unusual cocktail of these characteristics mixed together with sex and a plot that’s hard to make sense of on first viewing — though on repeat viewings, the story is relatively easy to follow. The combination of sex, a slightly heightened style of performance, and a convoluted narrative has always made American critics uncomfortable — just ask Brian De Palma or Paul Verhoeven, or for that matter, Alfred Hitchcock. Yet these movies are often the ones that endure long after the more conventional middlebrow releases of their era are long forgotten; untethered from cinematic notions of “reality” that are fashionable in the moment, their true virtues are ultimately celebrated.

De Palma’s “Body Double” played in theaters against Robert Benton’s earnest “Places in the Heart” in the fall of 1984 and got pummeled by comparison in the film review columns and at the box office. But which film is more commonly revived and revisited 40 years later? Ridley Scott was correct when he said that “The Counselor” should have been much bigger than it was, though his blaming its failure on the Fox marketing department isn’t entirely convincing. It’s just as likely that “The Counselor” was always doomed to the same fate as “Blade Runner,” to be unheralded in its moment but exalted later. Let’s hope so, anyway — if not, we truly do live in a universe of chaos and illogic just as Scott and McCarthy’s film argues.

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