Each day this week, a staff member of The Dissolve will pick a 2013 movie they liked more than the critical community at large. Today, Scott Tobias recommends The Counselor, Ridley Scott’s movie, based on a Cormac McCarthy screenplay, about a lawyer who gets into the drug trade. The Counselor received a 35 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and a 48 on Metacritic.
Matt Singer: Scott, back in October you wrote The Dissolve’s review of The Counselor and you gave it 3.5 stars. How would you rate the movie now? Has your opinion of it changed in any way?
Scott Tobias: Not at all, though it’s been fascinating to watch the film get kicked around by other critics, some of whom have either referred to it as the worst film ever (per Andrew O’Hehir in Salon) or a brilliant, unconventional explication of Cormac McCarthy’s pet themes. I still fall solidly in the latter camp, though I correctly predicted that audiences would revolt, given the film’s perverse refusal to satisfy the genre conventions it’s deconstructing. I joked at the time that Cameron Diaz humping a car may have been the only thing rescuing The Counselor from the dreaded “F” Cinemascore rating. (It got a “D,” instead.)
Matt: What in particular, besides Cameron Diaz humping a car, did you like about it?
Scott: As I wrote in the review, Ridley Scott brings plenty of style to the film—and two or three beautifully staged action setpieces—but The Counselor is very much Un Film de Cormac McCarthy, using the basic architecture of a drug thriller to bring us into an almost abstract moral hinterland where the spoils go to those with the most violent and predatory instincts. This is the world of No Country For Old Men, too, but the plot has been stripped away and most of the expected payoffs, too. Where the film works primarily for me is in the dialogue, which is wonderfully ornate and sinister; this is the type of film where instead of an execution, you get a kingpin speaking eloquently for 15 minutes about why someone is completely doomed. That’s not something you’re used to seeing out of Hollywood.
Matt: How have you felt in general about Ridley Scott’s recent work, and where you would rank The Counselor among it?
Scott: I think it’s his best film since Matchstick Men, which was a decade ago. Ridley Scott is a curious case: A director whose first few efforts (The Duellists, Alien, Blade Runner) suggested an absolute master of science-fiction/fantasy, but who’s proven to be both more fallible (Legend followed that run) and more diverse in his interests. If you’re looking for a common thread connecting some of his recent work—the wispy Provence of A Good Year, a grittier take on the Robin Hood story, an Alien follow-up in Prometheus that’s as convoluted as the earlier film was simple and chilling—you’ll have to ask someone smarter than me. I hate to take too much credit for The Counselor’s success away from Scott, but McCarthy has one of those rare voices that dominate from the page, and I think Scott’s role here was to frame the story as the stylish drug thriller that Trojan-horses all the other stuff.
Matt: So this whole Cameron Diaz car thing. Was it really as crazy as advertised?
Scott: Indeed. Maybe the year’s second-greatest display of flexibility, after the Jean-Claude Van Damme commercial. But really, that character is conceived in such a way that the car thing seems entirely plausible. It’s the type of role you can imagine Ellen Barkin playing back in the day: Vulgar, hyper-aggressive, committed to her own gratification. Though she plays the wife of a drug dealer (played by Javier Bardem), Diaz is the true alpha dog in that relationship, always eager to go on the hunt and prey on the weak. (Actually opening with them sipping martinis while their pet cheetah goes after jackrabbits puts an awfully fine point on it.) But that’s a big theme of the film: McCarthy wants to emphasize the existence of evil in the world and the power wielded by people, like Diaz, who have big appetites and no moral limits.
Matt: Were you surprised by the movie’s reception? It got some pretty negative reviews.
Scott: Not at all. It was one of those movies where you could feel the storm clouds gathering well before it screened for anyone, which was very close to its release date. The combination of Scott, that cast, and an original McCarthy script would have drummed up a lot more anticipation under normal circumstances, but this one was DOA.
Proponents and detractors alike will probably agree that this a strange, misbehaving movie, and if you’re not on its wavelength, it’s a torment. (Just the fact that Michael Fassbender’s unnamed, eponymous hero is such a deliberate blank immediately puts a hole in the center of the movie.) But as I wrote in my piece on the Cinemascore F-estival, estranging qualities are still qualities, and films that draw a “worst ever” response from people are almost always more fascinating than bad films of a more middling sort.
Matt: Between this and Keith and Genevieve’s respective defenses of The Lone Ranger and Turbo, I’m starting to see a pattern emerge (boom): You’ve all described your choices as “strange” or “weird,” and praised them for breaking free of standard Hollywood formulas. But isn’t that what most people claim they want from movies? Why don’t they embrace these adventurous films when they get them? Are audiences more conservative than they want to admit?
Scott: I’m not sure who “people” might be in this instance. Critics certainly do a lot of complaining about Hollywood formula and I’d like to think the general public wants to see something different, too, but these formulas exist for a reason. The more conservative movies get in terms of what they deliver, the more they set expectations for all movies to behave in a similar way. Would a movie like The Counselor have been rejected as thoroughly in the freewheeling 1970s as was in 2013? I don’t think so. But movies are so expensive and the stakes are so high that there’s no incentive for painting outside the lines. What The Counselor does that’s so clever is that it takes the form of a star-packed thriller and then subverts the hell of it.
Matt: All right, let’s wrap things up with the flip side of this conversation. The Counselor was a movie you liked more than a lot of other critics. Is there a 2013 movie other critics liked that you weren’t crazy about?
Scott: A few, but they were more a matter of degrees than me flat-out defying consensus. I listed some of these in our Conversation on the year’s disappointments, but reviews for Blue Jasmine struck me as too generous, as many reviews for better-than-average late-period Woody Allen movies tend to be. I loved a couple of the performances, namely Cate Blanchett’s and Bobby Cannavale’s, but Allen has trouble imagining how people live outside the cloistered world of Manhattan’s elite. American Hustle had the misfortune to win the New York Film Critics Circle award, thus exalting what’s really a minor, cartoon-y pleasure that brings David O. Russell’s brand of neurotic screwball to a new genre, but it’s otherwise completely disposable.
The biggest heartbreaker for me, in every sense of the word, was Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said, a comic drama that’s soulful and extraordinarily well-observed and acted at times, but is sabotaged by contrived plotting. There are others too, but on balance, I wound up liking a lot of films this year. Most fall prestige seasons, in particular, trot out plenty of white elephants, and though I haven’t seen August: Osage County or The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty—two of the more cooly received items—I found that many of the hotly anticipated films delivered. And I’m grateful to oddballs like The Counselor for bringing some unexpected life to the party.
The Counselor will be available on DVD and Blu-ray on February 11, 2014. Here’s its trailer: