Saturday, November 2, 2013

When the Axe Comes Through the Door

Andrew O'Hehir's review of The Counselor appears, as depressing as this is to say, to be the big one. But when you, or someone else on the staff tasked with this job but who is pulling directly from your review, slaps on a title like "Meet the Worst Movie Ever Made," you're going to enjoy a fair amount of traffic. Is it possible that O'Hehir could have possibly anticipated such a thing beforehand? Could that, now wait I'm just thinking this out here, have possibly motivated him to write such absurdities as those that litter his review, a review that, given the content of it, might have more accurately been titled "I'm Going To Use The Phrase 'The Devil's Candy' Something Like Six Times'?" Since O'Hehir happily -- gleefully, even -- imagines all sorts of cynical self-satisfaction blackening the hearts of The Counselor's principal creative forces -- director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Cormac McCarthy, for example -- I'm going to go ahead and say "He absolutely fucking did." It's a terrible, infuriating review, badly written and devoid of an argument about what the film is, and constantly falling back on boilerplate critic-speak so that he might better fail to describe what his objections are. Here's a key passage, or as "key" as it's ever going to get, from the review:

[T]he narrative of the film is almost entirely discursive, and largely consists of the Counselor sitting around with his obviously crooked associates —Pitt in a dingy white suit, stringy hair and a black eye; Bardem in hilariously ugly designer duds, accessorized with girly cocktails — having stilted, stylized conversations about women and money and snuff films and the meaning of life that don’t go anywhere. It’s like a mumblecore movie about a bunch of Sarah Lawrence philosophy majors, made by coked-up rich people for 100 bajillion dollars.

Well, hold the phone, if I'd known the dialogue was going to be stylized I daresay I would never have bothered! O'Hehir also calls the dialogue "stilted," which is at least a pejorative, but as with anybody who has ever used that word in a review, he believes that since "stilted" has a definition his work is now done, and providing examples and arguing his case would therefore be redundant: I said it was bad, which is my evidence that it is bad. As it happens, I rather liked McCarthy's dialogue, and tend to favor his writing in general, and furthermore thought The Counselor in general was pretty fantastic, about which more later. But right at the moment my head is full of this nonsense that I have to use as my launching point.

Except, no, I should reel this in. I would hate to be discursive, which The Counselor isn't, and which anyway, once again, isn't a pejorative unless you then go ahead and describe in what way the film under discussion falters as a result of this discursiveness, which O'Hehir doesn't do. And so, the plot! Michael Fassbender plays the titular character (we're never told his name) a very successful defense attorney who is deeply in love with Laura (Penelope Cruz), a sweet and beautiful woman with whom the counselor is about to forge what would appear to be a perfect life. However, we learn that the counselor is rather lackadaisically attempting to enter into the world of drug trafficking. He's being helped along in this endeavor by one of his clients, a flamboyant nightclub owner named Rainer (Javier Bardem) who is not entirely unfamiliar with the world of the Mexican drug cartels. Because of this familiarity, Rainer never stops warning the counselor about what kind of men are being dealt with, the kind of men being dealt with kind of being the core of the entire film. Why, precisely, the counselor thinks it's a wise move, or an okay thing to do, to go into business with a drug cartel, even at some remove, is never explained (this kind of withholding also bothers O'Hehir); all we know is that at one point he says that his back is against the wall, and we also know that he's arrogant enough to think he can handle it. "You can't," is what Rainer tells him, and "You absolutely can't" is what Westray (Brad Pitt), another link in the chain of clients and shady associates the counselor uses for his drug deal, says. But he does, and because he's naive, and because he's arrogant, he doesn't realize that someone, Rainer's girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz, who is not very good, I'll go ahead and agree with O'Hehir about that) is working against him -- or not him, specifically, but certainly against his best interests -- and leaving him vulnerable to an angry cartel.

And an angry cartel is unlike anything else. This, you see, is the "point," if I must be forced to use that word. Westray's short speech about snuff films is not in the least "discursive", and it certainly goes somewhere -- where it goes could not be plainer. It functions, first, to illustrate what the cartels are capable of, how their violence is so very different from most people would imagine it to be. Horrible violence to most people is shooting someone in the head. Violence to the cartels is a snuff film, or a bag full of severed heads, or death by bolito, a weapon described in the film that I will leave to you to learn about. I'm paraphrasing here, but Westray follows up his bit about snuff films by saying something like "If you ever thought there is something these people are not capable of, there isn't." So that's where it goes, first, and then? Well, it provides information that pays off very clearly later on. If O'Hehir can't be bothered to pay attention to the film unspooling in front him, then why should I pay attention to him when he writes things like "This having Alice Waters and Mario Batali labor in the kitchen for a while and then serve you a gray-green burger on Wonder Bread, with what looks like somebody’s pubic hair stuck to it" and believe it to be anything other than a child's idea of wit? He's not just wrong, he can't even be funny about it. This is unforgivable.

But I'm being discursive again. Elsewhere, I've seen Cormac McCarthy, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who wrote the script for The Counselor, pilloried for having gone off the deep end with this one. "Cormac McCarthy," goes the cry, "You are so great! Why have you written something so verbose and crazy and violent!? Your very first novel ever, The Road, wasn't like that! WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO YOU!?" I might be paraphrasing again, but the idea many are expressing that The Counselor is somehow unlike the McCarthy works we all, as a people, have enjoyed in the past, appears to have dug its claws in to the point that the response by others has been "Yeah, what's the deal with that, Cormac McCarthy?" And I'm reminded of one thing, as I always am when the subject turns to questions of Cormac McCarthy's writing style, and what I'm reminded of is this:

It howled execration up the dim camarine world of its nativity wail on wail while he lay there gibbering with palsied jawhasps, his hands putting back the night like some witless paraclete beleagured with all limbo’s clamor.

That's Cormac McCarthy describing the cry of a baby in his novel Outer Dark, which, now that you mention it, why didn't The Counselor have any palsied jawhasps or witless paracletes?? The gist being, The Counselor is pure McCarthy, or, rather, no -- in terms of the films preoccupations and use of violence, and the types of violence used, its Biblical morality, and almost pathological unwillingness to offer the viewer a shred of hope, in all these ways, yes, it's pure Cormac McCarthy. However, the language used -- the English language, not cinematic language -- is more like the comparatively straightforward No Country for Old Men, a novel and film with which The Counselor shares more than a few similarities. But the speeches in this new film should not be sticking in so many craws. They're quite excellent, in my view, and if they aim for profundity, whether or not they reach it doesn't mean they don't achieve poetry. Pitt has some terrific ones as Westray, but his are mostly fairly plainspoken. Ruben Blades, on the other hand, has something of a showstopper of a speech late in the film, his character being perhaps the last person to gently but in no uncertain terms explain to the counselor what a fool he's been. In the speech, he says, among much else, that the counselor wants to return to where he was, but "life won't accept you back." I fear this is not exact, and I would very much like it to be, but it's at least close. And, as a way to express the damage done not only spiritually but in practical and hellishly moral ways, when a certain moral line is crossed, it's clear and precise in its language; you cannot be the Prodigal Son, it says, because you've gone too far. What will happen has, for all intents and purposes, already happened.

Hey, but quit being so discursive! And don't cost any money at all to make, either. O'Hehir -- who spends at least a third of his review describing how he thinks The Counselor will one day be regarded (hint: it will be regarded as something that rhymes with "pevil's bandy," and it rhymes with "pevil's bandy" five time) -- gets pretty hung up on the fact that The Counselor was made by a Hollywood studio and therefore had some money behind it. In the bit from his review quoted above, O'Hehir says "100 bajillion dollars" but you guys don't think he could have literally meant that, do you?? Wait, I just checked -- the film cost $25 million, so pretty modest as these things go nowadays. But for fuck's sake, O'Hehir might as well have screamed, if you're going to make a film whose budget ends in "-illion," at least have the decency to not have so much talking in it. And yes, I wish O'Hehir had come clean and just fucking said that, since it's plain as day that's what he was thinking. If you're bored and confused -- that he was confused has been proved -- then just say so. Don't mask it with some vague economics-based self righteousness.

I think The Counselor is a terrific film, which I hope I've made clear. Fassbender is wonderful, even if his accent is sketchy -- watch him coming apart in a late face-to-face conversation with Pitt. His posture, his eyes, his voice, express the feeling that the counselor's life has now changed into something unimaginable. Cruz is heartbreaking, effortlessly sweet -- her face when she sees her engagement ring is about as on the money as I've ever seen that oft-dramatized scenario played -- and Bardem plays the flamboyance of a somewhat unlikable person as something that could easily exist and function on this earth. In fact, Bardem saves one of the film's missteps, which is the already-infamous "car-fucking" scene. The mistake there, in my view, was to go to the flashback at all, unless Ridley Scott was going to shoot it so that it, if such a thing is even possible, looked like it belonged with the rest of the film. He didn't, and it doesn't, but that scene exists prior to the film's main action, and the story is being told by Bardem's Rainer to the counselor, and as Bardem plays it (and as McCarthy writes it), Rainer is still utterly thunderstruck by what he witnessed, even disturbed in a way he can't really define. What comes through most is Rainer's confusion. But even this, for all its absurdity, much of it ill-advised, isn't "discursive" or "beside the point"; it may not work, but it leads to a realization. It's not the product of McCarthy or Scott saying "Hey everybody, let's put this stupid goofball shit in our 100 bajillion dollar movie!" Then everybody else goes "Hooray!"

I must be blunt about this: if you're going to trash a film in the way O'Hehir did, you must understand what you're trashing and you must then make your case. It's simply not enough to say that Cormac McCarthy's script is "labored," as O'Hehir does, because what in the world does that mean? It can mean something specific if you put it in your review, but if you don't then I guess you'd better say the film you're trashing might be the worst film ever made, because at least in that case you might go viral.


Greg F. said...

I have not yet seen The Counselor, though now I want to, but I ran into the same thing with my review of Roger Ebert's review of Heaven's Gate in which I made the case that it was possible - possible - that Ebert either hadn't entirely seen the movie or slept through it because in the course of his snark he got, not one or two, but multiple basic facts and plot points about the movie wrong. On a couple of occasions, his biggest snark lines were about things that hadn't even happened in the movie.

Anywho, I see that O'Hehir mentioned Heaven's Gate as well as Intolerance, which really confuses the situation as that is considered quite good by almost any standard, and seems really truly in love with the phrase "Devil's Candy Movie." He seems to be pushing the phrase, almost, as if to increase sales of Julie Salamon's book. And it's these things, as well as everything you mentioned and backed up with excerpts from his review, that lead me to believe his review is misleading on the movie itself.

bill r. said...

It is completely misleading. Going into the theater, I was hoping to like it but also fully expecting that there would come a point in the film where I could say "Okay, this is where it started to lose people." Even if I disagreed, I thought I'd be able to see it. But it's not there. The "car-fucking" flashback is the one bit I would say is actually bad, but it's short and relatively inconsequential, and anyway it comes late enough in the film that if THE COUNSELOR was going to completely fly off the track it would have done it already.

The hatchet jobs are utterly baffling to me.

Jesse Furgurson said...

I'm a little more favorably disposed to O'Hehir than you are, since he's written some solid stuff in the past and pitched some tough but worthy movies to his readership.

But this was just hit-grubbing snarkiness, typical for Salon, a little depressing coming from him. The line in it comparing The Counselor to Godard's video work pissed me off to such an extent that it led me to write 1800 words on the subject.

bill r. said...

I just read your piece, Jesse, and it's great. But see, this is the problem with the kind of snark O'Hehir is using to drum up page hits: it can't withstand being called on to back up any of the shitty things it says with such confidence.

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen the film yet, but it's clear from what I've read that it at least attempts to do something bold and different, even if it fails. The Salon critic is attempting to make a name for himself with this review, and can also go screw himself for this review. At 25 million, The Counselor will probably do just fine financially in the long run, but it is reviews like O'Hehir's that give pause to any financier who wants to take a chance on a risky film. And it's not a critic's job to worry about what a film cost, anyway, or whether it will make its money back. The audience doesn't care.

Taidan said...

I didn't admire the film quite as much as you did, but I agree that it's going for something interesting and largely achieves it. It certainly didn't deserve the kind of shellacking it got. Thanks for a great piece.

LCB said...

I think O'Hehir is a pretty useless critic, who mostly traffics in snark and meaningly critic-speak - his review of the 2010 movie Secretariat was particualary awful, a snarky screed about how a movie about a racehorse was actually master-race propaganda that sounded equal parts paranoid and half-assedly sarcastic. I mean, I didn't care for the movie myself but O'Hehir's tortured thought processes he used to frame the film as some sort of Disney White Supremacist propagnda was a bit over the top.

Noumenon said...

Bill, the phrase "palsied jawhasps" remains one of my very first memories of you. Happy times.

bill r. said...

Those really were good times, weren't they? [Sigh}...palsied jawhasps...

seymourblogger said...

The Counselor is a difficult film as it breaks from film Discourse and obviously the gentleman from Salon doesn't know his Continental Philosophy. I liked the way you took him on. Here's more to back you up in your thinking and perception of The Counselor. And thanks for your review.

seymourblogger said...

The Counselor is a difficult film as it breaks from film Discourse and obviously the gentleman from Salon doesn't know his Continental Philosophy. I liked the way you took him on. Here's more to back you up in your thinking and perception of The Counselor. And thanks for your review.