by Paul Deines
I have sometimes a problem recommending films. Not good films, obviously. If a film is unambiguously funny or thrilling or heartrending, well, I can recommend it without reservation.
Where things get sketchy is when the film is not good. That is to say some element in the script, the acting or the production has hobbled the film, but it retains the spark of brilliance, generally because of an undeniable artistic assurance. Such confidence from a director, writer or acting ensemble makes me ignore a host of flaws (it’s the reason I can’t totally discount a mess like Enemy). I refer to this otherwise-unnameable attribute as batshit. It’s what causes me to burst into a room and hale a film without going so far as to say it’s any good.
And so, I want to give a little credit to the batshit, the train-wreck experiments in style and exuberance that fell short artistically and commercially but still draw me in when I happen upon them late night on HBO or IFC. So, I’m starting a new series wherein I will choose a manic near-classic for each year, beginning in 2013 and proceeding back. I call it Profiles in Batshittery.
These primers require some methodology; so I’ll lay mine out. Critically, the film cannot have an averaged Metacritic, Rotten Tomatoes Critic and Rotten Tomatoes Audience score exceeding 65%, and at least one of those scores has to be lower than 50%. I’m not looking for total garbage, only films that disappointed critics and annoyed audiences. Domestically, the film cannot have grossed more than its budget. This should ensure the film was a commercial disappointment without discounting something that did big BO in Europe or Asia. Finally, the film cannot have won any major awards.
(Note: I reserve the right to fink on these rules at any time)
And so, without further ado, the inaugural batshit classic: from 2013, it’s Ridley Scott’s The Counsellor.
What it Promised …
I enthused last year about the prospect of a screenplay written by Pulitzer Prize-winnning author Cormac McCarthy. No American author does fatalism quite like him, and his portrayal of the dread fringe of the Mexico/Texas border will make a generation of readers reticent to visit the Lone Star state. He was also the most improbable entrant in Oprah’s Book Club. Ridley Scott was coming off the bonkers (potential Batshit contender) Prometheus and seemed capable of any sleek, brutal thing. Plus, the cast included star-on-the-rise Michael Fassbender in the title role, as well as Brad Pitt, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, and Javier Bardem (who won an Oscar for a McCarthy adaptation). Also, Hank from Breaking Bad was in the commercials!
What it Delivered …
I assumed we would get McCarthy-light in Ridley’s film, that the bleak ponderousness of the prose would be pruned for a mass-audience. Negatory.
The relatively simple story of an unnamed lawyer (Fassbender) trying his hand at drug smuggling is rendered as pitilessly as … well maybe not a pitiless as Blood Meridian, but close. Scott and McCarthy expand their story to encompass many middlemen, soldiers, and hangers-on of the narcotics trade, and their bellicose characters ruminate about the implacability of the world’s cruelty. The Counsellor is also campy as hell, with exceedingly goofy murder methods (garrot-wire strung across a rural roadway?) and bizarre non sequitur sequences that serve no purpose (catfish on the aquarium glass?). Fox clearly had no clue how to market this, and I pity them the task. Ridley’s film is a wonderful mess, virtually unclassifiable.
What Works and What Doesn’t…
Many hated Fassbender in the lead, but I have to dissent. His work is not as affecting as it was in Hunger or Fish Tank. Nor is it as firey as in 12 Years a Slave or goofy as Prometheus. It’s devoid of the effortless charisma he had as Rochester or Magneto, but that works. The Counsellor is privileged and ambitious but totally at sea. As Brad Pitt’s amusingly world-weary professional repeatedly tries to warn him, he’s the type of callous gringo the cartels would murder for fun.
Watching Fassbender’s frightened lawyer get batted about is the center-ring of this macabre circus. His scenes with Pitt and the motley fool played by Bardem are particularly wonderful, even though they’re all variations on them telling the Counsellor what a bad idea his plan is. In these relatively subdued moments, we get eerie ruminations on snuff films and automated nooses. Equally fine are Rosie Perez as a criminal matriarch and Bruno Ganz as the type of morose central European confidante only he can play.
Less effective is Penelope Cruz as the Counsellor’s betrothed, but this is mostly because she’s saddled with McCarthy’s worst dialogue. Ever. Consider this ever-so-sensual bedroom interchange from the film’s first scene:
COUNSELLOR: God, you’re sopping.
LAURA : I know.
COUNSELLOR: How’d you get yourself into such a state?
LAURA: From thinking about you.
COUNSELLOR: Thinking about me what?
LAURA: From thinking about your sweet face between my legs
As Strongbad says, that gives me the gibblies. I’m sorry I had to do that, but this is what happens when McCarthy goes for sexiness.
What’s So Batshit about It?
This movie, more than any ostensibly mainstream picture reasonably should, rubs our faces in hopelessness. It’s a strength, but this nihilism’s manifestation is a huge flaw: Cameron Diaz. Some adored her predatory performance (so predatory she has leopard spots!), but it strains credulity in every direction. I’m getting in to SPOILER TERRITORY here, but the notion that she is somehow controlling the machinations of this drug theft without the knowledge of her husband (who has financed many of these deals!) is ridiculous. She wanders around the picture copulating with cars and taunting local priests with her dirty tales. That she is the catalyst for everything that transpires simply makes no sense. And Diaz is a talented actress, but not an intimidating onscreen presence. Her Malkina is supposed to be a force of ravenous malevolence on par with the Judge or Anton Chigurh. The gravitas to match the bloodshed and tears around her is just not there.
Can I Recommend It?
God, there’s so much that works in The Counsellor, but what doesn’t is tedious in the extreme. Its conclusion is a perfect encapsulation of this schism. McCarthy and Ridley give us three endings. The first is the grand-guignol climax with shouting and screams and arching geysers of blood. The second is the real heartstopper, an unadorned tragic coda set in trash dump. It’s the sole visual flourish in a very talky picture, and it feels like the decimation of the American empire, like chickens coming home to roost, like all the pain inflicted on the developing world reverberating back.
That’s followed by an agonizingly bad denouement, with Diaz explaining and explaining, thumping us on the forehead with McCarthy’s themes while we wait for the credits.
Nonetheless, I feel I have to recommend The Counsellor. It has something to say about America’s precarious position at the top of the proverbial food chain, even if it sometimes gets lost in its own digressions and undone by its weaker components.
God willing and the creek don’t rise, Profiles in Batshittery will be a monthly series. So, please feel free to remain on the edge of your seat until July, when I’ll discuss 2012’s Killing Them Softly.