The Counselor 2013 ★★★★

Middlemen in the grid
Business along determined lines
For perfect cuts.
Pink lemonade pleasures
Always stand out.

Like many others, I've spent the last years pretty much loathing Ridley Scott - shoddy handheld images with relentless CGI all delivered in a monotonous color schemes. So here's something different: straightforward shots, exacting compositions, layers of depth, very specific backgrounds and uses of mise-en-scene, and camera dollies all on direct straight lines. I’ve never been more excited to see a filmmaker abandon his “style.” In The Counselor, there are no blending of spaces; each place has its very own distinct visual look (the yellow hued Juarez, the pure white home of Counselor, Bardem’s garish purple wall and excessive TV screens),and each character his own individual identity (see Fassbender's clean cut black shirt and khakis against Bardem's outlandish hair and shirts). This is a film about what is in the grid and what's outside it—everything is transactions and must fit into the puzzle and things that don't are eliminated or pondered (see: Dean Norris and the paradox of the fourth barrel). Besides the rat-a-tat hard boiled dialogue which Pitt and Fassbender pull through without wincing (and not to pile, but Diaz simply lacks that sort of gravitas - it's too easy to see her hinting at menace, and then too hard to believe when she pulls it).

But Scott's on a total different game here – one I haven't seen him play. Every color is given a distinct line; each scene its own distinct character (check out that frontal/background lighting sequence in the proposal), but he lets things "slip" through to give brilliant hints. Exhibit A and my favorite detail in the entire film: During the catfish monologue, Bardem starts making and drinking a pink lemonade that sticks out so directly against the rest of the visual palette of the sequence (Scott even gives us a close-up of said lemonade). This is our sign that business is not as usual, and if we're smart enough, we can make the connection to that split second shot of Diaz making the call that first tips us off is - you guessed it - a hot pink background. There's a lot of simple storytelling too – not just in the elimination of exposition, but the mostly wordless sequence leading to the motorbike contraption, and really a lot of use of visual signifiers to tell the story often - we memorize locations, vehicles, and faces, and using them to connect to each other allows us to follow the grid that McCarthy builds and Scott visualizes. Sure a lot is one and two shots back and forth, but go back and watch the work and watch the negative space; this isn't some lazy put the camera here, there's a lot of subtleties at work (Bardem putting his hand on Counselor as he explains the wire neck thing - a sign of caution and menace). Does the film mean anything? It's overly nihilistic and not to mention misogynist, though to deny these elements is to deny the film's premise. I'm willing to ride on this thing on pure delivery of narrative - precision that works on pretentious levels but is rarely pretentious itself.

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MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW

Peter's Super Weird Theory About The Movie: I've become super obsessed with what I feel like is the currently heating up debate on "open" and "closed" movies — Cinephiliacs listener James Stroble wrote about this here. Well, in many ways, The Counselor is a movie about the relationship between open and closed movies. The film literally gives us everything we need to know and nothing more, and then gives us these details that are just a bit too much, and then spends the rest of the film trying to fit them in. The catfish monologue is immediately questioned by Counselor - "why the fuck would you tell me that?" "I don't know actually." - and it's the perfect example about those who can only see inside and don't see the value of an open system; the superfluous details - the most excessive ones - are always the most essential (Pitt can't live in a monastery because of women; Edgar Ramirez as a priest listening to Diaz seems to have no connection to anything, until he does; Counselor is willing to give up even his own life for Cruz, but in revealing such a detail, he seals her fate). It's a film all about the difference between open and closed circuits - Pitt's character tells Counselor that the Cartel "doesn't believe in coincidences;” everything must fit. And of course what leads to Counselor's downfall? A romantic plot that doesn't "fit" within the system. Is this really a deconstruction of the open and closed movie? Likely not! But I kind of like this very personal reading — the first scene says it all, there's your fantasy, your imagination, what you fill in the details of what you want, and then there's the real thing. You can imagine you're somewhere else, you can insert what you want on top, but it's not part of the system and must ultimately be excised or subsumed.

6 Comments

  • Re. the open/closed lens and the role of the excess: I'm much more inclined to read these seemingly excess elements as part of the closed system itself (except maybe Norris and the fourth barrel) – somewhere between Hegel and Freud, we have the idea of the meaningful error and the seemingly unimportant role of the slip of tongue. I think the film is making a case for the essential role these oversights play in materialistic, contingent, closed systems of determination and over-determination.

  • "shoddy handheld digital images" seems demonstrably false. this is only his second digitally-shot film, and going back years he's used handheld sparingly, usually in action sequences.

  • To add to that, Prometheus--digital--is full of static long shots and is gorgeous. But I do recall shitty handheld in some of his shittier films.

  • There were a few handheld shots, used sparingly, in THE COUNSELOR. One of them, if I recall correctly, was when Bardem gets out of his car only to be lit up. If that's wrong, I know it basically travels along the interior of a front seat.

  • Matt - yes you're right to point out it's not digital, and I'll fix that. Perhaps memory is faulty, but when I remember the films I remember those sequences more than anything else, and I think that goes back - to add to Brent's point - to my more important point about his use of color, which is strategically distinct in this film (even Prometheus was a lot of blue on gray). And yea there are some handheld shots in The Counselor but not many (and I didn't mention this but I found the two "action" sequences to be somewhat dull).

  • i'll grant you his rather uniform (you personally might say monotonous) color palettes, but they change up from project to project; it's not like he's shooting everything teal/orange). i think the handheld thing applies somewhat to ROBIN HOOD and BODY OF LIES (probably his two laziest entries in the past decade) but, just as a for instance going back a round 10 years to MATCHSTICK MEN he's always kept a pretty tight grip on the tripod/dolly. even in KINGDOM OF HEAVEN he only really lets go of it for battle sequences.

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