It’s always later than you think, Counselor

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‘The Counselor’ is Ridley Scott’s best movie since 2003, when he last dove into film noir with ‘Matchstick Men.’ And while that film packed a gut punch unsuggested by its breezy marketing, it did not even approach the depths of noir that this new one hits.

Cormac McCarthy wrote ‘The Counselor,’ a screenplay which seems inspired by the philosophical thriller treatment that the Coen brothers gave his novel in their awesome ‘No Country For Old Men.’  It thrills less and talks more, but it shares an alternating pattern of horrific violence and metaphysical discussion. And it works.

While most of the pre-release buzz has surrounded the author and his first original screenplay, the master director seems forgotten in the discussion of his 21st feature. Which is strange, since ‘The Counselor’ is the most [only] personal film of Scott’s illustrious career.

Tony Scott, Ridley’s brother and creative partner in Scott Free Productions, committed suicide in August 2012 by jumping from the Vincent Thomas Bridge in Los Angeles. Much of ‘The Counselor’ was already in the can by this time, but it’s impossible to watch the film without reading it as the director’s emotional response.

While the finished movie finds the visually hyper Ridley Scott at his most patient, often letting the camera sit still while his characters talk for minutes on end, a read of McCarthy’s published (before the movie’s release) screenplay shows just how active Scott must have been in the cutting room. The movie still plays like an unusual series of dialogues, but Scott left the longest (and most brutal) bits of soliloquy in the Avid trash bin. He made a 120 minute film from a 180 page script that was wandering, savage, and over the top.

The movie is none of those things.

‘The Counselor’ is tight, razer sharp, and bursting with anger at the inevitability and pointlessness of death. Michael Fassbender (as the titular protagonist) finds himself often screaming, crying, and unable to cope with the consequence of his actions, which is pointless death. Death which seems, in the short term, avoidable, but of course in the long term is not. Certain characters try to ease his pain, notably Jefe (Rubén Blades), an ambiguous Cartel higher-up in a terrific phone-call that negates accusations of the film’s supposed nihilism.  Grief, Jefe tells the Counselor, has no value. But that makes it no less overwhelming and destructive.

Fassbender is great in the movie. So are Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt. Cameron Diaz, the only party present who seemed overly aware of the plot’s hard boiled origins, is not very good. The movie would be better with a more nuanced approach to her key roll, but it isn’t a deal breaker. Composer Daniel Pemberton does stunning work in his first high profile feature gig. DP Darius Wolski softens the tragedy of a digitally shot Ridley Scott film with some beautiful images, but I would have loved to see those cheetahs race through the Texas desert on celluloid.

‘The Counselor’ has already failed at the box office and taken a critical drubbing. But like a lot of very heavy, very unusual films, it will find its audience later. And as one of the strangest, most powerful, and best movies in Ridley Scott’s inconsistent but glorious career, it deserves to.

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