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The Counselor

by Jake Mulligan
Contributor
Tuesday Feb 25, 2014
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There’s a phrase used in certain cinema-focused social circles, "film maudit," that I don’t believe has much of an equivalent in other art forms. Literally, it translates as "cursed film." What it’s really refers to, though, more than cursed efforts, are those noble cinematic disasters.

The term refers to those films so stringently anti-commercial that you can’t believe they got made; those films whose authorial view is so skewed and singular that they only could exist as the product of the vision of specific artists; those films so dense and resistant to easy criticism that they’re immediately lambasted by the establishment. Film maudits are those films that time forgot because only a few people had noticed them in the first place.

"The Counselor," directed by Ridley Scott from a script by the legendary author Cormac McCarthy, is such a film. The narrative follows Michael Fassbender’s titular counselor -- he’s given no name -- as he invests in a cross-the-Mexican-border drug shipment, presumably to finance his impending nuptials to an almost-hilariously angelic wife (Penelope Cruz). Fassbender’s joined in the trade by partners played by Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt. They’re all haunted by the female sex: Fassy by his financial devotion to his wife-to-be, Bardem by his sinister significant other (Cameron Diaz,) and Pitt by his taste for loose women.

McCarthy writes the disastrous turn the Counselor’s life quickly takes as a result of his drug trade not as a tragedy, but as an inevitability. The joke of the script is that there is no tension in this thriller (try as Scott might to conjure some up). Fassy’s out of his penthouses, and into run-down Mexican barhouses, running for his life, but there are no gunfights, no chase scenes -- just existential despair, and philosophical monologues.

Things go equally bad for his two "partners," also. Each of the three men is eventually brought down by either the cartel or the women around them; all men in McCarthy’s world destroyed by forces they don’t comprehend, be they women or unseen evil (what’s the difference, he asks?). If you know McCarthy’s work, you know what you’re getting into: There’s an almost campy sense of sexism here, offset by ironic humor, and it tints the entire picture with a plight-of-the-alpha-male vibe. That’s why McCarthy’s screenplay is stronger than the film it birthed. Scott’s direction, and most of the acting, can’t manage to sustain that aforementioned very-specific vibe -- that’s why the film is a curiosity, and not a classic.

But we’ll get to that in a minute. First, the home release of the film: Though there’s technically only one "special feature" here -- a skippable behind-the-scenes piece of documentary fluff -- there’s also a whole second disc included, containing an alternate cut of "Counselor" that runs about 20 minutes longer than the theatrical version. The extra minutes consist mainly of choice-McCarthy-isms that, even by "Counselor" standards, were too weird for the cinema; think Pitt’s character explaining that he found a location "by opening the Yellow Pages and turning to ’Bar,’ " or Fassbender’s Counselor exclaiming that Cruz has "the most luscious pussy in all of Christendom."

There are only a couple of entirely new scenes though. For the most part, the 20 minutes added consist of extended versions of dialogue scenes already present. These extensions settle the film’s pace a bit more distinctly. (It’s no surprise that the movie, made up almost entirely of slow-paced dialogue scenes, plays better at a longer length.) Past the pace, though, the scenes don’t change much else -- the additions just push the picture’s verbose philosophical interludes even further toward the forefront. By extending the length of the film, the add-ons dilute the action scenes, and the rote moments of tension, even further. The theatrical film was a work of macho-philosophy disguised as a genre movie; this version takes the disguise off.

The extended cut is more added bits and pieces than it is a resetting of the film’s structure. What didn’t work in the theatrical doesn’t work here (Scott’s embarrassing emphatic zooms, Daniel Pemberton’s over-the-top self-serious score, Cameron Diaz’s badly dubbed performance), and the strong points that won the film defenders (McCarthy’s loquacious dialogue; Pitt and Bardem’s knowingly absurdist performances) are as apparent as ever.

So this extended cut is not a rewiring, but simply a longer take of the film we’ve already seen. It’s still an uneven picture. Almost every aspect of the film -- the non-Pitt-and-Bardem acting, the embarrassingly Hollywood-standard score, the flat people-talking-and-nothing-more compositions -- erodes the narrative subversions the script sets up. Only a couple of the actors here are in on McCarthy’s joke; Scott, the score, most of the actors, they’re taking this picture, and those subversions, at face value. "The Counselor" is a great script, and it’s also one of the era’s most accomplished cinematic misfires.

"The Counselor"
Blu-ray (Two Discs)
20thcenturyfox.com
$39.99

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