In Defense of… The Counselor

“In Defense of…” is a series of articles meant to examine and reevaluate films that opened to poor critical or box office reception. This article may contain SPOILERS.

Evidence Against:

  • Rotten Tomatoes Score: 34% (Critics), 24% (Audience)
  • Box Office: $71 million worldwide/$25 million production budget

Let’s get this out of the way first: you’re probably not going to like The Counselor. In fact, I’m not even sure I like it and I’m the one trying to defend it. That leads to the obvious question of why I would even bother writing this piece, but that requires a little back story on the film.

Directed by Oscar nominated director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Alien), written by Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men, The Road), and boasting an A-list cast featuring the likes of Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, and Brad Pitt, The Counselor had the potential to be a minor hit with critics and a decent sized audience when it opened back in October. But upon its release, it tanked at the box office and was widely hated by audiences and critics alike, appearing on numerous Worst of 2013 lists. Salon even went so far as to call it the worst movie ever made.

Michael Fassbender in  The Counselor (2013)

Michael Fassbender in The Counselor (2013)

And that’s where I have to disagree. While The Counselor has many faults, it is far from being the worst film of the year, let alone of all time. In fact, I would argue what makes The Counselor so interesting is its failures. It tries so hard to be something different than a conventional south-of-the-border crime thriller (the kind Sam Peckinpah used to excel in), and features some elements that are so off-putting and out there, I can’t help but respect and defend it, even if it doesn’t fully work.

For all its critiques of being too complicated, The Counselor’s plot is actually fairly simple and straightforward. Michael Fassbender plays a man-with-no-name lawyer (he’s referred to only as “Counselor” throughout the entire film) who decides to get into the drug trafficking business and finds himself over his head when things go south, literally and figuratively. Where the film’s plot gets complicated is in its abstractions. In a medium where audiences are used to being spoon-fed every last detail, this is a pretty ballsy move. We know who the players involved are as well as their motivations, but much of the “how” occurs off screen, so much so that the Counselor barely registers as doing much of anything. With the exception of one key decision towards the end, he basically just shows up where he’s told to go. All the actions and decisions that went into him getting into this business in the first place happen before the movie even begins.

In that sense, The Counselor is an exercise in non-narrative, with its structure resembling a novel more than an actual film, which makes sense considering the film’s screenwriter is a celebrated novelist. There isn’t a whole lot of action, and when there is it’s brief (but very violent). The Characters spend more time sitting and conversing then do moving around. Here, plot exposition is replaced by philosophizing and words of caution. The dialogue isn’t economic and to the point, it’s more along the lines of Quentin Tarantino or David Mamet, often telling its own story to make a point. There are even whole scenes that act as tangents, with little relevance to the plot. That’s what makes The Counselor so fascinating: it’s not your basic Hollywood three act structure. Instead, it’s a fable, not unlike the kind that Aesop used to write.

Brad Pitt in  The Counselor (2013)

Brad Pitt in The Counselor (2013)

You have a lead character who suffers from a particular vice, in the Counselor’s case it’s a mix of greed and pride, who attempts to get ahead in life by taking a shortcut as opposed to working hard. He’s warned by his friends and companions about the decision he’s about to make, but ignores them to his own detriment. In the end, the character learns his lesson the hard way, with his downfall acting as a moral for the audience to hang onto.

Sure, greed and pride are pretty basic vices we’ve seen overused in films before, but what makes this film standout is the way in which McCarthy uses the US/Mexico border to direct the film at a modern audience. If we’re looking at The Counselor as a fable, then it’s easy to look at the entire film as an extension of No Country for Old Men’s epilogue (also written by McCarthy). The kind of savagery that made Tommy Lee Jones’ sheriff character mourn in the end of that film is on full display here. What’s even worse: it’s just business as usual to these people. It’s business as usual to us too. Every day, the 24 hour news cycle spits out images of graphic violence and intense suffering happening all around the world, and it doesn’t faze us anymore.

Cautionary tales are typically about the future. “Don’t do that or this might happen to you” is their mentality. Today’s storytellers often employ dystopian or post-apocalyptic worlds set in the far flung future to get their points across.  Ridley Scott has made a number of films like this before, most notably in Bladerunner. Now he has made another, except in the case of The Counselor the future is now. Thinking of the film in those terms, perhaps it’s not a cautionary tale after all. Perhaps, like the sheriff at the end of No Country, McCarthy is simply mourning a world that has divulged itself into senseless violence.

All that being said, while I admire the film’s ambitious storytelling and themes, I’m not sure the execution of it fully works. Is the fault in Scott’s direction of the material? Would a director with a better handle on this type of material, like the Coen Brothers, have made a more satisfying film? Or is McCarthy’s writing just not conducive to screenplay format?

Cameron Diaz in  The Counselor (2013)

Cameron Diaz in The Counselor (2013)

Who knows? Perhaps in twenty years we’ll all look back fondly on the film. It wouldn’t be the first time that happened to a Ridley Scott film. Bladerunner and Kingdom of Heaven both suffered from low box office returns and unfavorable reviews, but slowly gained a cult following and critical reevaluation.

Do I think The Counselor is a great, or even a good, film? No. Does is it fail to live up to its potential? Yes. But I think it deserves credit for actually trying to be something different. In a world where big budget blockbusters rule the cinema, it’s refreshing to see a movie made for adults and released by a major studio that tries to be something different. The Counselor is not a film for everyone, but if you submit yourself to its ways, you might actually find yourself liking it.