The emptiness of things left unsaid: Ridley Scott’s The Counselor

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One of the great things about spending most of the end-of-year holidays in Joeys is that one can go and see many films, even during the day, often back-to-back, and feel utter guilt free. To end 2013, I cooked prawns for my newly relocated mother and took her to a movie. Unfortunately, the opening was a strong indication that I had made a terrible choice for a mother-daughter outing.

For starters, I don’t think any single girl with very different sexual mores from her ma will fail to squirm during an opening scene where Penelope Cruz tells Michael Fassbender that she got wet fantasising about his “sweet face” between her legs, and watching him promptly realise the fantasy. I wished that I had sneaked in the half bottle of MCC we left at the house. This was not something we were going to talk about on the way home.

Things got worse after that, so, in a way, The Counselor was an appropriate way to end a fairly bewildering year. It had been a bit of a Yarborough, and I don’t feel at all bad about not achieving the goals I set for myself. In fact, the film inspired me to not set any goals for 2014. Although good things also happened, and gains were made, last year simply did not score a ten.

Ridley Scott should feel the same. If I had to choose favourite directors, his would not be the first name on my list. Iñárritu, Almodovar, the Cohen brothers, Scorsese, Cassavetes, Mike Leigh, Stephen Frears, Peter Weir and Gus van Sant are ahead of him. I am not sure why, seeing that he directed one of my favourite films of all time – Blade Runner – and others that I loved almost as much: Thelma and Louise, Gladiator, Alien, American Gangster. A few, less awesome in my book, were nonetheless taut, disciplined stories that were beautifully told: Body of Lies, G.I. Jane – Scott is a prolific filmmaker and a very good one.

So The Counselor was a disappointment. It is a thriller about an unnamed lawyer involved in the murkier side of his client’s business dealings, who pays, and pays. One is never sure why he gets himself embroiled at all. He seems to be doing well, he drives a flash car, lives in an expensive apartment, buys his fiancée a mother of a rock and takes her to the polo. He claims to his client/partner-in-crime that his “back is against the wall”, but you don’t see it. You learn that he resisted a similar proposition (from a fantastically colourful Javier Bardem)some years before. And from the off-screen, top-of-the-drug-chain POV, you never really understand why he is necessary for the deal.

Predictably, considering the darkness of the film’s universe, everything ends in a shit pile (literally) and our protagonist is left unredeemed. Not that redemption is a deal-breaker. Woody Allen is equally vicious with the eponym of Blue Jasmine, but his film is an intimate, acute and profoundly moving character study.

One does not get close to the counsellor, as much as one might desire to. It is impossible to connect with him; instead, one is cast in a mildly (although perhaps not so mildly, if you are watching with your mother) voyeuristic role where his only subtext is expressed through his relationship with a woman that he loves passionately. “Life is being in bed with you,” he tells her, “everything else is waiting.” This is a large declaration to a character who only has about four calls in the film.

Instead, the antagonists seem to get puzzling quantities of airtime. There are scenes with Cameron Diaz that have nothing to do with the story: a bizarre attempt at Catholic confession and a confounding pornography on a Ferrari’s windscreen. Why are we spending this time with her?

And you never really understand what many of the other characters – fascinating, flamboyant, with seriously philosophical monologues – are doing there. Very often one does not know who they are. They appear from nowhere; they are co-incidences on our hero’s highway to hell even though indications are that they should somehow be significant. Their job appears to be the closing of the barn doors after the horse has bolted. As some of the write ups and crits have remarked, much of the action happens off screen. Too much, I think.

There are good things about the film that get lost in the scrambling narrative: Bardem and Brad Pitt embrace their whacko roles with commitment and enthusiasm. One wishes that they were good guys. And the relentlessness of the narrow path to which the counsellor strays, the consequences of his bad decisions and the cataclysmic backdrop are beautifully filmed and immaculately art directed and explored. But it is not enough to make it a good film.

My mother did not have much to say about the film as we drove home, other than that it clearly shows that drug trafficking was a bad idea. This, I think, is undisputed. But I could feel her not saying a helluva lot more. I think that is what Ridley Scott did too, and as is often the case with things left unsaid, it may have been remiss.