Art By Omission
by ALEX CARNEVALE
dir. Ridley Scott
The lawyer (Michael Fassbender) is a very happy-go-lucky guy. His business is with the cartels; his partner is Reiner (Javier Bardem). The two plot to sell $20 million in cocaine to the Mexican cartels. It turns out this is a very ugly business, although not quite as ugly as you may have imagined, since it is being carried off by people who look more like models than criminals.
Fassbender's love relationship is with a sweetly innocent Penelope Cruz. There is a fantastic scene between the two of them where we only hear the male side of the telephone conversation. Instead of excising the time it takes for the other person to respond, we have to suffer through Fassbender's patience to hear her completely, even if only for a moment, out of respect for the one he loves. "Being together is everything," he crows, "the rest is just waiting." Bullshit.
Fassbender is the most exciting actor working today. The only thing he cannot carry off seamlessly is any kind of sexuality — hence the phone intercourse. He more resembles an androgyne with a working set of genetalia; it is no wonder he seems perched on the edge of a career playing robots. He is the anti-Rock Hudson.
Mr. Scott seems to adore using Fassbender because he is wonderful for distracting you from the point of the scene. In The Counselor, such distractions are useful, since there is really nothing in the way of conflict between the characters, at least nothing that would feasibly be resolved with words.
Plastic surgery has altered the boundaries of Cameron Diaz's facial expressions. She is now prone to playing emotionless characters because the vast majority of her cheekbones' communicative abilities have been reduced to either a coy smile or utter disgust.
"My parents were thrown from a helicopter when I was three," she informs a priest for some reason. (He cannot even bear to share the same confessional as this woman.) The Counselor features Diaz's best role in some time, both because she is supposed to be cold in it, and because she does a nice job of showing how a person can be both corrupted and have that corruption be sort of infectious.
Brad Pitt portrays the middle man in the counselor's transaction with the cartel. He looks years younger than in his recent roles, probably because his part here demands more boyish charm than a grim father surviving the apocalypse.
Diaz having sex with a car windshield, as she does in a flashback Reiner recalls to the counselor, does not make very much sense. It is the only funny part of The Counselor, the rest is just extended long conversations between famous Hollywood actors pretending to be people they are so obviously not.
Yet there is a sort of benign, harmless charm to The Counselor, something like visiting a family ride at Disneyland. You try to enjoy it even though you know you are not the audience for which it was intended. The film never feels overly long or boring, since it is composed only of anticipation, not action.
In a way McCarthy is making a joke on how cinema represents anything at all, calling it to moral account. Do I have to tell you at whose expense this joke is being made?
The events of The Counselor all connect to each other, and there is very little in the way of plot to follow. These scenes might take place in any order. "I'm not going to tell you what mistakes you made that got you here," a member of the cartel tells Fassbender, who can only respond idly in a fakish Texas accent brought into existence purely for this role.
This explanation — that the counselor was doomed all along, simply because of his race and status, is meant to be an ironic commentary.
McCarthy's art here is entirely by omission. By drawing our attention away from how action usually takes place in cinema, he forces us to reexamine our role as spectator. It is something like looking into a microscope instead of the entire rhesus monkey: Fassbender, Pitt, Diaz, even McCarthy himself are merely cells in a larger organism. Instead of the way you are told evil unfolds, it has already unfolded more quickly than you realized. When you woke it was at your doorstep.
These people have known each other for longer than you have known them, possibly much longer. After they order two Heinekens, Pitt and Fassbender get to talking. Pitt's cliches are so wrapped up in themselves that they approach parody; it is all that his fellow actor can do just to keep a straight face he mugs so much. Pitt's career was founded on looking levelly at people with sunglasses and taking their measure; the counselor looks away until the penultimate moment, the only one at which he is ever alive.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.
"Lotus Flower (Jacques Green remix)" - Radiohead (mp3)