Thursday, October 1, 2015

Theory Thursday: "The Counselor" is Underrated

Left to right: Michael Fassbender and Javier Bardem in The Counselor
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: The Martian is released in theaters
Theory: The Counselor is underrated

Left to right: Cameron Diaz and Penelope Cruz
This weekend marks yet another promising release of films, including The Martian from director Ridley Scott. Based on the book of the same name, the film has gotten rave reviews for Matt Damon's performance and is already being considered for potential Oscar consideration. However, there's likely one other thing that is forgotten in the transition: people don't like Scott. At least, that is if you go based off of his past few films. Contrary to quasi-successful films like Prometheus and Robin Hood, he isn't seen in the best light by most audiences who believe that his best work is behind him. In fact, if you were to personally ask me what his last *great* film was, I would tell you Matchstick Men from 2003. It was a film that somehow managed to turn mental disorders into an endearing character trait as Nicholas Cage navigated the world of familial relationships.

So, what exactly has made Scott such a lackluster presence? I don't believe that it is age. A lot of great directors are well into their old age by now, including Steven Spielberg. However, I don't know that too many people are willing to look past maybe Gladiator or American Gangster with Scott. There's no denying that his earlier work is phenomenal. In fact, it is probably better and more influential than fellow Friday release director Robert Zemeckis (The Walk). Both are equally engaged with cutting edge special effects to progress story. The only difference is that Zemeckis' lesser works like Flight are often better than Scott's lesser works like Prometheus - a film that I think is underrated solely due to entertainment value. Scott's credits have Alien, Blade Runner, and even Thelma & Louise. He doesn't really need to prove anything to us anymore.

I think that this attitude is both capable of making Scott's output seem less problematic and more dismissive. While I don't think that Exodus: Gods and Kings was at all a good movie, I think that its spectacle was fine enough. There's no denying that Scott is capable of making a film rich with visuals. In fact, it's probably going to be the biggest thing about The Martian. While it is sold as having the intimacy of Damon surviving on Mars, it also will likely have everything else about the intergalactic travel. But my concern is why are we to really care about Scott's new film if he has such a lousy track record lately? Well, here's where I want to bring up my point: he hasn't been great, but he hasn't been awful, either. In fact, I'd argue that his work is considered underrated (except for Exodus).

I am going to specify the one that has gotten the most severe backlash. It was so bad that I held off seeing it for several months despite having a stellar cast. For what it's worth, The Counselor is a film that should work. It has writer Cormac McCarthy teaming up with a cast of actors who could do his dialogue justice. Even the presence of Javier Bardem seemed promising, solely because he won an Oscar for playing a McCarthy character in No Country For Old Men. However, the movie got lambasted with critical pans upon its release, earning 35% on critics aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes. While it isn't the bottom of the barrel (Exodus did earn 27%) that iconic bad movies are, it is a number likely to dissuade the casual fan to even see it. It's been called boring, nonsensical, and a lot of other things. Yet, I want to argue that it is part of its charm.

Probably the greatest challenge is to get around Cormac McCarthy himself. The author is renowned for his writing with "The Road" and "No Country for Old Men." His prose is complimented on the page, making something more meditative that sounds like lunacy on screen. This is McCarthy's first actual screenwriting credit, so this is the first time it hasn't been filtered by someone else's prose. True, he did write the play for The Sunset Limited, but that was more of a two person play than any grandiose plot revolving around drug kingpins and some freakish animorphing characters. Before I continue, I will state that McCarthy the novelist is better than McCarthy the screenwriter, no contest. It's just that I think to deprive yourself of a unique experience is to take away something more fascinating about McCarthy's style.

The one thing that is immediately clear is that this isn't an average character drama. Along with other drug films like Sicario and Savages, this film feels a tad different. Its characters don't speak in a fluent manner or rely on violence to solve all of their problems (though they do occasionally). It's mostly a power trip that is done through philosophical phrasing and vapid wonderment. It's one of the few films to embrace its absurdity while also allowing its characters to be reverential. It's a power play in which women must be seductive and men must be wise enough to beat the competition. By the end, everyone screws something up and nothing is as it seems. This may sound like a basic territory for an average film, but it's also the beginning for McCarthy's prose. 

There's something to McCarthy's prose that immediately feels alien. For those not ready to feel like each character is a bus bench of philosophical quotes, this may be a challenge. For those familiar with the novelist's prose, there's not much in the way of shock here. In "The Road," the author eliminates all inessential detail to paint a minimalist picture of the apocalypse. Whole conversations are reduced to repetitive exchanges, flowing like a mental stream. It's why he won the Pulitzer Award, after all. He is an author with strong capabilities. However, for a man that made a career out of challenging the English language, it still seems strange to come across exchanges such as this:

Reiner: "Are you really that cold?"

Malkina: "The truth has no temperature."

Not exactly the most fluent of prose to hit actors' lips. Even with great performers like Bardem, Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, and Brad Pitt; the language is immediately jarring in a manner that feels specific. To some, this is a terrible, no good rotten idea. In fact, I would kind of agree, if the story around it wasn't compelling enough to warrant the exchanges. What McCarthy does is take his existentialism and applies it to realism, thus creating something that falls into the cinematic landscape. 

Think about it, if you will. Most writers have a very specific style that compliments their work. In fact, it's what makes film and TV such an exciting medium with the right voices. Think of David Mamet, Aaron Sorkin, Joss Wheodn, or Amy Sherman-Palladino. You recognize those voices, even if the characters change. While this can be problematic, even point for ridicule, it does make cinema such an engaging landscape. It's why films like The Road and No Country for Old Men resonate. Yes, it is McCarthy through the guise of a screenwriter, but the story is surreal and interesting in a manner that gets you excited. Frankly, I don't know that McCarthy writes *exciting* prose. His work is more slow and methodical than anything else. That alone may be what the problem is for some.

I also think that the very idea of McCarthy doing more pulpy, sexual prose is not everyone's favorite idea. There are entire passages of the film dedicated to metaphors on Cameron Diaz's genitalia. Of course, there's also references to her possibly being a cheetah. Then again, it all adds up to a film that is meant to explore the power struggle between its various characters and how everyone is out to deceive someone else. The prose is cautious, hoping not to give away too much while giving bumper stickers of wisdom to the audience. If McCarthy did anything with the film, he made it into something unique and immersive in a manner that most films aren't.

I am not entirely sure how to comment on Ridley Scott's contributions, largely because I don't know that his style is graced over the imagery. The only complaints that could be applied only piggyback off of those who hated his previous film Prometheus. For me, this film is slow and not exactly the more immediately gratifying film in Scott or McCarthy's career. However, I do think that it's weirdness and very specific prose amount to something a lot more satisfying as a film. This is by no means a great film with anyone at the height of their game, but it is one of the more adventurous, experimental films to come out that challenges a lot of basic cinematic functions in a way that is inevitably weird and fascinating. To dismiss this film is to ignore a lot of richer subtext. 

I do think that another part is that these type of films, by nature, or just boring. Brad Pitt's Killing Them Softly is another politically charged film that revolves around a lot of conversations. The only difference is is that film is very much about the conversations and not a lot of... as the title would suggest, killing. To some extent, both of these films exist to push ideals of its characters more than present fascinating, stylistic stories that would be complimented by either Scott or Andrew Dominik's direction.If I have any saving grace, which I don't know is enough to make The Counselor more than an acquired taste, it is that this film is at least ambitious in doing weird stuff and confusing the audience in between the smartly written, slowly delivered dialogue that is sure to get under your skin - in a good or bad way is interpretive.

With Scott still making movies, I don't know that there's a lot to really argue against him. The Martian is getting some of his best reviews in years. Even if I don't really love The Counselor, I feel that it is worthy of more consideration than it's low rating deserves. It is by no means a masterpiece, but more of an example of art being abstract and challenging. Yes, there's plenty that doesn't make sense and it is occasionally repulsive, but it is inherently McCarthy brought to life. There's not a lot of that out there, and this film will remain one of those strange outliers as a result. We may get more tampered down McCarthy in the future, but we'll likely never get him pumping out a screenplay as surreal and strange as The Counselor.

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