Disc Jockey: Give Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Counselor’ another chance
‘The Counselor’: Unrated Extended Cut
20th Century Fox
Like his “Blade Runner” over 30 years ago, Ridley Scott’s latest, “The Counselor,” was a bomb and critical whipping post. (Although “Blade Runner” didn’t make as many worst-of lists.) The version on home video isn’t, like “Blade Runner” was, labeled a “director’s cut.” It’s an “extended cut,” and one that doesn’t radically alter the content. Written by Cormac McCarthy, it’s still a series of erudite conversations — on the nature of diamonds, on accepting death, on male fears of women — with a drug underworld plot that seems to only make half sense.
Even with 20 minutes more, we still don’t know what exactly befalls the titular lawyer (Michael Fassbender) and others, including his fiancee (Penelope Cruz), his business associate (Javier Bardem), Bardem’s bisexual (and possibly duplicitous) minx (Cameron Diaz) and a cucumber cool middle man (Brad Pitt). Given slightly more air, this version simply flows better. (It also features more dirty talk in the film’s opening, including Fassbender referring to Cruz’s naughty bits as “the most luscious … in all of Christendom.” Cormac McCarthy, you devil.)
What’s really in “The Counselor”’s favor is a second chance. This movie is, to put it mildly, not for everyone, especially because it’s the purest distillation of McCarthy’s novels to film. Visited after seeing the Coen brothers’ film of it, “No Country for Old Men” reads like watching the film. (It’s one of the most faithful lit adaptations ever.) But McCarthy greats like “The Road,” “Child of God” and “Blood Meridian” — which Scott has toyed with adapting, but said would be beyond NC-17 in its unbridled carnage — are about language. Their prose is meant to be savored, even as it puts forth arguably the bleakest worldview in literature.
“The Counselor” gets both those things. Knowing that there’s no way to translate his prose to images, McCarthy frontloads language. He then uses endless, sometimes tangent-heavy dialogue to put you in the characters’ shoes: Like Fassbender and company, you’re distracted by the talk to notice what’s really going on. In turn, one underestimates how badly they will be destroyed by the drug trade with which they’ve foolishly gotten involved.
We don’t need to know the specifics of why they’re going to be punished beyond their wildest dreams. This is McCarthy’s reductio ad absurdum of the materialist beliefs running through his work: that we think we can outsmart death, but we can’t. Nature is, as they say, red in tooth and claw, and it’s disinterested in what we think, what we’ve done, all that we’ve accomplished. It’s an embodiment of this passage from “No Country For Old Men,” after Anton Chigurh has killed day tripper Carson Wells:
Chigurh shot him in the face. Everything that Wells had ever known or thought or loved drained slowly down the wall behind him. His mother’s face, his First Communion, women he had known. The faces of men as they died on their knees before him. The body of a child dead in a roadside ravine in another country.
“The Counselor” embodies the starkness of this passage even better than the “No Country For Old Men” film. And so it features half-sketched characters who remain alien to us, a plot that’s beyond their and our comprehensions, a Darwinian struggle for pure survival that only favors the strong and only briefly mourns the lost and, as in life, no real satisfaction. The bad win out because they played long cons. But they’ll get theirs, because we all do. “The Counselor” won’t gain many fans, but those who come around will lap it up as one of the darkest movies a major studio ever thought would be a big hit. It’s satisfyingly unsatisfying.
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