The Counselor (aka The Counsellor, 2013)

Oh dear, where do I start? I went into this film — whose showing was conveniently aligned with a two-hour gap in my schedule, rather than because I specifically sought it out — with low expectations, to which the film was more than equal. I’ve read and enjoyed novels by Cormac McCarthy in the past, as I have watched and enjoyed films by Ridley Scott, though both are known for a certain pared-down muscularity to their work. It’s not simply that I did not connect with this product of their collaboration, because in many respects I admired the filmmaking on show, as found it to be actively offensive.

For a start, I’d call it misogynistic — and when a female character quite literally ends up dumped on a garbage tip, I don’t really know how it can be otherwise — but perhaps gynophobic would be more accurate to its creators’ intentions. Women are arch-manipulators of the men in the story, and it’s Cameron Diaz’s character Malkina who’s at the heart of this theme, using both her animal wiliness (she has a leopard-print design tattooed down her back) and her sexuality to control those around her. Even the suggestion of lesbianism is given in the context of the domination and control of a man. Perhaps a memorable scene on the windscreen of her boyfriend Reiner (Javier Bardem)’s car was going for the kind of self-conscious trashiness of the kind seen in say The Paperboy, but on screen it just comes across as bizarre and a bit hateful. Poor Penélope Cruz doesn’t really stand a chance then as the title character’s fiancée, and gets short shrift in the movie.

The focus then is on Michael Fassbender’s unnamed (legal) counsel to the flamboyant Reiner, with Bardem here, bedecked in colourful shirts and vertiginous hair, making a mid-career bid to become the next Nic Cage it seems. The setting is a textbook Mexican-border lawless Hell-on-Earth racist fantasia of the type that should seem pretty familiar to filmgoers by now, and it’s unsurprising that Fassbender’s Counselor gets in over his head in some shady drug dealings that go violently awry. Fassbender himself has little more to do than rush back and forth fretfully, reacting to what he’s told and what he sees, though he does this perfectly ably. As an actor, his face always seems to conceal a certain hardness of spirit, but here his character quickly sheds any semblance of this, testament perhaps to his chameleon-like acting talent.

If the acting is adequate and Ridley Scott’s visualisation of the story is competent, it’s in McCarthy’s script that much of the film’s weakness lies for me. Characters talk in laconically gnomic phrases suggesting emotional depths but more often laughably banal, at times pushed to ridiculous extremes (Bruno Ganz’s diamond merchant and Rubén Blades’s floridly eloquent gangster boss are particularly grating in this regard). Early on, there’s a lengthy description of a particularly gruesome decapitating contraption whose measured implacability comes to be a metaphor for the way the narrative itself operates over the second half of the film (though unsurprisingly it makes a literal appearance later on) — events unfold with nasty inevitability, and there’s little hope of redemption for anyone.

What we’re left with in The Counselor, then, is a bleak and nasty story of equal-parts calculating and helpless women, trapped men and violent Mexicans. Maybe I’m entirely missing the point and this in fact is Scott’s late-period masterpiece, but I doubt it. The characters are granted no reprieve, and nor is the audience.

The Counsellor film posterCREDITS
Director Ridley Scott; Writer Cormac McCarthy; Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski; Starring Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Penélope Cruz; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Tuesday 3 December 2013.

Skyfall (2012)

Whatever they try to do with James Bond, however they try to update the archetype with those familiar post-Bourne trappings of propulsive action/espionage mayhem intended to reflect the modern world, there’s always that nagging sense that Bond as a character is trapped in the past — the guns, the girls, the cocktails, the sense of macho imperialist entitlement. It’s certainly acknowledged here with plenty of hat-tips to the supposed old world charms of this retrogressive character, but despite Judi Dench returning to provide a strong female presence, by the end it feels like the series has been firmly returned to its cosy blinkered stasis.

Part of my antipathy is just with the modern action thriller template, with all its chases and explosions and steely professional sheen. The laconic one-liners are still there, but they don’t really add any recognisable levity; at their worst, as during a rather grisly William Tell-like contest in a deserted island city, they become actively offensive. I don’t doubt that in this particular scene the quip was intended to be Bond trying to hide his emotions while wrong-footing his opponents, and yet with the emotional investment severely underplayed, it comes across flatly — the best I can say is that the one-liners bring to mind the classic era of this type of action hero, a grimly 1980s fantasia of Schwarzenegger and Stallone, one man armies reaffirming entrenched establishment values.

So women are returned to the sidelines; the one agent in the field fluffs her role and resigns herself to a menial secretary’s work. Bond meanwhile seems to be the sole person capable of thwarting the terrorist plot, one of those elaborate villainous schemes that hinges on the good guys doing specific things in specific places at precise times so as to allow the bad guy’s plot to be advanced (ridiculous screenwriter conceits up there with having your boffin tap some keys while muttering pseudo-technological nonsense, even if Ben Whishaw does very well as Q). However, Javier Bardem at least brings a welcome campness to the villain; it’s just a pity he doesn’t show up until more than half the film has gone by.

That overextended running time allows for lots of longueurs — mood-establishing quiet scenes, the filmmakers might have intended, but they just come across as unnecessary to this viewer (and I like slow films). To me, Bond’s character isn’t really given any depth here; there is some Rosebud-like hinting at his murky past, and yet as a character played by multiple actors over the last 50 years, the idea of a backstory and family history just seems odd. And those places where the action stops to shoehorn in a product placement: why do Bond films seem to do this so much more clunkily than others?

I didn’t hate this film, despite all I’ve said. It does what it needs to do rather well, and as a Bond film it’s one of the better recent ones. Perhaps I just feel weary at this type of film now. Certainly, by the time we’re ushered into the office of government bureaucrat Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), the series appears to have decisively stepped back into a world of old boys’ networks and chauvinist back-slapping, and that just leaves me underwhelmed.

Skyfall film posterCREDITS
Director Sam Mendes; Writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan; Cinematographer Roger Deakins; Starring Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw; Length 143 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Sunday 28 October 2012 (and on Blu-ray at home, London, Wednesday 10 July 2013).