The Counselor – Cormac McCarthy and Ridley Scott bring writing to front and centre. (Film Review)
One can usually assume the swelling vortex of Oscar contenders brings with it more quality films this time of year than any other, and there are some excellent films out at the moment, but the best I’ve seen do not have any hope of competing for Oscar glory. It is also fair to say some of the best films out at the moment can’t even command a strong audience, as two films I admire very much, Adoration and now The Counselor have been criticised in an off-hand dismissive fashion that may prove to be the sort of blind backhanded wave that discarded Blade Runner in its early days. Interestingly, Blade Runner and The Counselor are both Ridley Scott films and if I hesitate to label him a visionary, I do so only for the sake of dulling the sensibilities of readers with a trite cliché. Ridley Scott is regularly misunderstood, despite our overall fondness and respect for him, and despite our collective regular praise for so many of his films, and with The Counselor, I firmly believe he has done something remarkable with the film aesthetic in bringing it closer to the novel.
Regardless what you might think of Cormac MacCarthy’s novels, he is a spectacular writer, and it’s no happy accident (I suggest) that he and Scott are paired here – rather this is a team that understand each other perfectly. This is only the second time I have seen a film that has been completely and totally subverted to the text, the other being Hiroshima Mon Amour (there may be others) so much so that rather than a novel being adapted for the screen, the screen has been adapted for the novel – and I say that knowing it was never a novel, but the screenplay is written like one. The Counselor is one of the most beautifully written films you will ever see, and only a director as forward thinking as Scott could experiment with the idea of the novel as film, so that you are left with a film that watches like a novel reads. The directional changes show up in plot, dialogue, editing and most remarkably, casting. These actors are so great, it is impossible to believe the submission to text is accidental. It isn’t of course, but where other book-film styles try to mask or bury the famous faces to a certain degree (I’m thinking Sin City and A Scanner Darkley as good examples) McCarthy and Scott have left their famous faces out in the open air, forcing the text to powerhouse next to them, while also forcing the film and the director to use them to place the text front and centre. In this task the film may not be entirely successful, it definitely comes across as a first go brilliant attempt, but it is completely successful in its aim because I left feeling as though I had read a book, and I have never had that experience from a film except for Hiroshima Mon Amour. I don’t mean I left wanting to read the book; I left feeling as though I had read a book.
The overall theme of the film comes through in the battle of the sexes. Each of the men lose their power to women in the film, and the central point that becomes the heart is the moment when Cameron Diaz, sans undergarments, does the splits over the windshield of a Ferrari, massaging her vagina into the glass till she comes, before a shocked and rather horrified Javier Bardem. Later in his conversation with the counselor (Michael Fassbender) he reveals his fear of the moment, and his despair at never being able to enjoy the Ferrari again. He describes the vagina sliding over the glass as a catfish in a tank, sucking at the glass for its food. It is the perfect image of the great mythical all-consuming vagina, the centre of female power, not being penetrated, but sucking, absorbing, eating, osmosing (and therefore destroying) as much as it is able to give life. Despite the power and eroticism of the imagery, it is the descriptive language that transforms the experience for the viewer. Diaz is gorgeous, Scott films her eroticism exquisitely, but McCarthy’s image as described by Bardem, is the defining factor in our response. This submission to text is repeated throughout the film, particularly with violent deaths being spoken about and described before they are shown. In one case, we never need to see the death. We are informed of what happens through a dialogue about another person in another time, and then when a simple CD appears on-screen, we are filled with more horror than the vision of the death taking place could have given us. Over and over image is subverted to text, but not in the fashion of suspense, more like a novel, slowly filling in the gaps of our understanding.
The cast is excellent, with Cameron Diaz never better, but even more so because of their restrained respect for McCarthy’s words. Characters are not underplayed, rather they are walking descriptions, including almost none of the background necessary to complete a film script. Like a novel, we are told only the very little we need to know, so the nuances of fiction become more important than the rules of film making. Plot comes more from theme and dialogue than from events, and our interest in each individual comes from their language and their speeches rather than from their actions. Scott films their speeches close, intimate, and warm just as if we were reading rather than watching. Compare this with, say a Tarantino film where the dialogue is heavily subverted to action and image, or Polanski’s recent film Carnage where the film is clearly adapted from a successful play. In both these examples the film takes precedence over the writing, the cleverness of the writing being used to enhance the film in one case, and being reduced for the sake of the film in the second.
I left this film feeling excited for the possibilities for film. Writing such as this is very radical and films made this way almost impossible to imagine. I hope it means there is a new style of film making on its way, but even more I desperately hope more fiction novelists start to write films in this style, as it gives a whole new dimension to the experience of film.