It is hard when you come across a film that impresses you beyond words but everyone else – or at least nearly everyone – either hates it or misunderstands it or both. This happens to all lovers of cinema at some point, and it is the situation I find myself in with The Counsellor, Ridley Scott’s dazzling, dizzying masterpiece that was released in cinemas in November. It drew nearly widespread negative critical opinion, with reviewers calling it meaningless, boring and a mistake. I don’t agree. This is a film so ruthlessly committed to its pitch-black view of the world and the people that inhabit that it gives birth to a strange, elusive kind of genius.
Scripted by Cormac McCarthy (who has become famous, in both print and in the cinema world, for dark and troubling stories such as The Road and No Country for Old Men), the plot is a difficult one that is easy to simplify but inherently hard to convey. A lawyer (who we only ever know as the Counselor), played by Michael Fassbender, invests in a drug shipment with a connection of his (Brad Pitt). He is happy, good looking, engaged to a lovely woman (Penelope Cruz). Unfortunately for them, the deal goes terribly wrong. I shall try to leave the plot description at this because, to be honest, story is not the main focus here. More important is a philosophical discussion on good versus evil and the forever-darkening line between the two. The meaning of life, the meaning of death, the meaning of love. They all fall into the philosophical, and downright terrifying, chasm that the crackling dialogue opens up.
Scott and McCarthy wisely avoid the pretentious feel of more art-based films such as this year’s weird Nicholas Winding Refn effort Only God Forgives, and instead tell their story like a straight thriller, but one that frequently subverts and upsets any sense of security the audience have invested into it. The most disconcerting scene is the now infamous sex scene involving Cameron Diaz’s vagina and a car windscreen whilst a stunned Javier Bardem watches from inside the vehicle. Such explicit humour is thrown on its head, however, when the darkest of horrors are brought to the surface (‘Have you ever seen a snuff film?’), and one scene of painful realisation brilliantly portrayed by Fassbender introduces nausea-levels of unease that last a lot longer than the movie’s running time.
Audiences seeking out pleasant (though gritty) escapism may well hate this film. It is a rigorous, unforgiving and inherently nihilistic exercise in menace and pessimism. Those who find such an idea distasteful will come away disappointed and repulsed. Those who dare taste such daunting flavours may well discover a movie that offers its own rainbow of delights; a rainbow of many shades of grey that refuse to be easily read. I haven’t seen anything as fascinating as this for a very long time. It left me reeling.
The Counselor (2013), directed by Ridley Scott, is released in UK cinemas by Twentieth Century Fox, Certificate 18.