Highly regarded as one of the best filmmakers of his generation, Ridley Scott has brought us classics such as Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator yet his reputation has strangely taken a beating of late. Last year, his sort-of prequel to the Alien series Prometheus failed to satisfy the loyal fans of the franchise and his latest piece, ‘The Counsellor’ has been poorly received to say the least, though I for one, thoroughly enjoyed it. It stars Michael Fassbender in the eponymous role, as a man who gets in over his head in the drug trafficking industry around the Mexico/Texas border succumbing to greed and temptation with very little persuasion. He heads an all star cast which includes Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz and Brad Pitt, who all revel in delivering well constructed passages from veteran novelist Cormac McCarthy’s complex screenplay as The Counsellor’s glamorous lifestyle collapses around him.
It seems that the recurring criticism is that as well written as McCarthy’s script is, it is said to struggle to translate to the big screen. In the past, his dark novels have been adapted into screenplays, with the most acclaimed example of this being No Country For Old Men, which the Coen brothers transformed into a multi-Oscar winning delight, but this is his first attempt at writing for the cinema. This results in an intelligent dialogue driven film and the A-list cast lap up every sentence, articulately conversing with one another brilliantly. I liked the flow of the dialogue, my personal favourite line belonging to The Counsellor himself as he lovingly tells his adoring fiancée Laura (Cruz) over the phone ‘life is being in bed with you, everything else is just waiting’. The on-screen spark between the two is electrifying from the explicit pre opening credits scene.
The excellent script is accompanied by wonderfully sticky cinematography, as if every frame has been dipped in a sticky gloss. The shallow almost cartoon-like characters are well suited to the plastic environment that Scott creates, where money is everything, morals mean nothing and every room of every house looks like a page ripped out of a designer catalogue. The narrative does have gaps, and virtually no sign of back-story or character arcs, but I enjoyed piecing it together whilst allowing the visuals to wash over me. The structure reminded me greatly of equally stylish Brit crime thriller Layer Cake as I drew comparisons between the unnamed leads – both opportunistic charismatic males who like to dabble in a criminal underworld believing they are too smart to suffer any consequences, and both terribly, yet predictably, underestimate the realities of their actions.
A gangster flick with such an established crew was always likely to attract an equally established cast, and the list of names does not disappoint. The utilisation of the female stars raises eyebrows as if filling places of both a feisty femme-fatale and a naive innocent lover, it’d be easy for one to assume that Penelope Cruz would take on the former and Cameron Diaz the latter, but here the stereotypes are reversed with a pleasing outcome. Cruz’s vulnerability is stunning, and Scott’s use of the extreme close up is successful in getting the most out of her natural beauty, whereas Diaz plays ‘the bitch’ in a way I could never have imagined, her cheetah obsessed diamond witch is like a younger version of Kristin Scott Thomas’ sadistic blonde matriarch in Only God Forgives. She also gives us one of the finest film moments of the year, involving a Ferrari windscreen, that is hard to forget.
Of the male members, Brad Pitt is expectedly solid, but unfortunately underused, though his part is integral to the plot and he takes centre stage in one of the films best scenes. Bardem’s portrayal perhaps has the least depth as he fills the boots of the generic kingpin, his segments are so clunky that they are vaguely reminiscent of GTA cut scenes where you are nearing the end of the game play and are introduced to the end of level boss. The least sensationalised is Fassbender who gives a powerful turn as a man losing control but he is so responsible for his actions that it makes it difficult to empathise. No matter how flawed or underdeveloped the characters are presented, they all look amazing, except Bardem, and do justice to a uniquely mesmerising script.
This is far from the expected crowd pleaser the cast and crew suggested, and will not be to everyone’s taste. McCarthy chooses to keep the audience guessing, refusing to offer up a spoon fed plot and Ridley Scott directs in a way that is pleasing to the eye, and occasionally terrifically violent, but this is well judged and he handles the graphic elements perfectly. Ultimately, he presents the film in an attractive package and lets the script most of the talking which bring out well measured performances all round and is chockfull of cleverly formed philosophical snippets commenting on the dirty Juarez layer in the which a group of cheap selfish individuals inhabit an expensive, materialistic society.