Friday, October 25, 2013

Drug War: THE COUNSELOR


A murky drug war thriller, The Counselor keeps its focus on the people in the middle. This isn’t a story of drug lords and D.E.A. agents. It’s a story of lawyers, money launderers, logisticians, and truck drivers. There’s the Counselor (Michael Fassbender), a lawyer who finds himself nebulously floating between a sleazy nightclub owner (an unnaturally tan Javier Bardem) and a guy with connections (Brad Pitt) as a whole lot of drugs are making their way across the border and through the American West, with Chicago, and a $20 million payday, as a final destination. These three men form the core of the film, although there are choice roles for women (Cameron Diaz and Penélope Cruz) who have more and less power than you’d initially assume. These people are involved to greater or lesser extents in moving drugs and money around the world. They all seem to be in control of their part of the plan, but unexpected variables bring danger quicker than anyone expects. As Pitt explains, for the cartels, decapitation isn’t a result of anger or malice. It’s just business.

The screenplay is by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Cormac McCarthy. In his unflinchingly hard-bitten narratives like Blood Meridian, No Country for Old Men, and The Road (the latter two adapted into recent films), he specializes in prose so economical and spare he doesn’t even have time for such frills as quotation marks or indented paragraphs. In The Counselor, he finds something of a cinematic equivalent as scenes unfold pertinent information slowly, leaving plenty of gaps that may or may not be filled. It’s a thriller that doesn’t hurtle with propulsion, but rather takes its time rewarding patient and indulgent attention on the part of the audience. It’s a chilly red-blooded literary accumulation of details. The sparsely characterized cast of characters shows us these details through their actions, their personas, their crisply written dialogue that leans heavily on its sense of drive and negotiation. Characters are always jostling for the upper hand, feeling each other out, and moving with confident wariness. When not speaking of negotiations and logistics, they’re prone to speaking in sour metaphor or baring their souls accidentally in eccentric anecdotes.

McCarthy invents characters so tersely individual and specific that it’s little wonder that the Coen brothers are the only ones to get his prose exactly right on the screen. Here, without the benefit of his tough descriptions, his narrative leans on the strength of the cast to imbue the characters with life. They do, creating characters who are at times as inscrutable as they are committed to whatever their goals happen to be. It’s a story that finds a new, welcome character actor around every corner, with room for a diamond dealer played by Bruno Ganz, a prisoner played by Rosie Perez, a priest played by Edgar Ramirez, a supplier played by Dean Norris, and more. Each arriving for only a scene or two, they add immediate richness around the edges, a sense that the world of the ensemble contains multitudes, options and tracks that fade out as the plot narrows its focus and the dangers of the game begin to tighten around our leads’ necks.

Long build ups of methodical process, trucks of drugs packed and unpacked, secret meetings in hotel lobbies, revelations of who is spying and who is being spied upon, move along slowly and glossily. Violence comes fast, frightening, and ends just as quickly, leaving only eerie silences behind. Sudden gore gives way to sudden nothing. It’s all subdued, elegantly terse tension, nasty in a dour, matter-of-fact way with flashes of odd dark humor. A motorcyclist’s severed head sits in its helmet. The murderer hits the top with a thwack, sending the head flying out with a thunk. It’s as awful as it is strangely funny in execution, an extra little detail in a production that’s obsessed with finding moments like these. It’s a muted, grimly determined thriller that’s sleekly designed, handsomely photographed, and loves to get darkly strange from time to time. It’s appealing and unpleasant, sensual and a little funny. Just listen to Bardem’s monologue about what Diaz did to his car and tell me that it’s not all of the above.

Director Ridley Scott, in one of his rare modern day efforts (no Gladiator or Blade Runner here), takes a perfume commercial approach to glassy modern architecture and grimy black market transactional back alleys alike. (Scenes set around Bardem’s pool can’t help but unconsciously echo Scott’s 1979 work for Chanel.) When he, with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, finds an image like a pet cheetah stalking a jackrabbit in a southwestern desert, or severed fingertips falling onto wet pavement, he lingers with stoic stylishness, finding the fussy details, but showing them with minimal excitement beyond their visual punch. He and McCarthy blend styles quite nicely here. They were at one point working together on an adaptation of Blood Meridian, but this eccentric original screenplay manages to blend their styles in ways a straight adaptation might not. It’s big, striking, and commercial, but granular, elusive, and specific as well. The Counselor is a movie that looks like a big Hollywood thriller, but it moves with sometimes-unexpected tones and rhythms. It is beautifully ugly, fitting for a movie that regards its characters and story with the cold logic and icy gaze of a predator moving in on its prey.

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