The truth may not have a temperature, as Cameron Diaz’s leopard-spotted femme fatale says early on in Ridley Scott’s “The Counselor,” but watching the movie you may nevertheless feel a certain chill in the air, no matter the sun-scorched Southwestern locales. Chalk it up to the sangfroid of the characters and their stone-cold greed. There’s an iciness, too, in how the movie has been received: The opening weekend numbers are in and they’re disappointing, the venerable audience-polling firm CinemaScore has branded it with a grade of “D,” and the critics have, by and large, made with the movie like a cheetah with a jackrabbit. The reviews have been especially unkind to Scott, who has been accused of pretension and pomposity. And to his screenwriter, the celebrated novelist Cormac McCarthy, the message has been clear: Don’t quit your day job.
Well, let us acknowledge that Ridley Scott has been down this road before. Thirty years ago, a little movie called “Blade Runner” met with a similar kind of bewilderment from the public and cognoscenti alike. It too was cold and austere — it was literally about robots — and, like a number of movies Scott has made since then, deeply indebted to the doomed romances and nihilist poetry of film noir. And now Scott has made another movie set in a violent dystopia from which there can be no escape — only in “The Counselor,” the future is now.
“The Counselor” is not “Blade Runner,” but it is bold and thrilling in ways that mainstream American movies rarely are, and its rejection suggests what little appetite there is for real daring at the multiplex nowadays. Let’s begin with the plot, which is intentionally abstracted as it is in that other great, fatalistic color noir, John Boorman’s “Point Blank.” Abstraction is always a risky move in a medium where audiences are accustomed to being spoon-fed every last detail, or at least given all the pieces of a puzzle they can construct in their heads on the ride home. In “The Counselor,” though, the pieces form an incomplete jigsaw — we know who’s double-crossing whom and why, but much of the “how” happens offscreen, not just out of sight but out of mind of Scott and McCarthy’s lawyer protagonist (Michael Fassbender), who fails to realize that he is but a jackrabbit, and there are serious predators lurking on the horizon.
The movie is nominally about a drug deal gone wrong — wrong for some people and right for others. But it is really about a kind of animal savagery that hangs in the air in the very bad land along the Texas-Mexico border. It’s the kind of savagery Tommy Lee Jones’ laconic sheriff gazed on with pained awe in the earlier McCarthy adaptation “No Country for Old Men” (another story set into motion by a botched drug deal). But in “The Counselor,” the violence is at once more baroque and more systematized: Beheadings are business as usual here, and the undeclared cargo of a septic truck driving across the painted desert is as likely to include ingeniously camouflaged narcotics as it is the odd human body or two, stuffed into barrels, endlessly ferried to and fro in some kind of toxic purgatory.
Shot in searing yellows and browns by the Polish cinematographer Darisuz Wolski (“Prometheus”), “The Counselor” comes at you like a sweltering fever dream, and at least one possible interpretation is that it’s all one prolonged hallucination, as the Counselor himself lies in the broken, desperate condition we find him at the end of the film, trying to piece together what happened. (Not for nothing is the first line of dialogue in the movie the breathy whisper of Penelope Cruz asking “Are you awake?” amidst a tangle of bare limbs and bedsheets.) But awake or dreaming, “The Counselor” is a ravishing object — a triumph of mood and style, form as an expression of content, and dialogue that finds a kind of apocalyptic comedy in this charnel-house existence.
To the clear irritation of some, McCarthy doesn’t write dialogue that sounds like ordinary conversation (but then, neither do Mamet, Pinter, Tarantino, et al.). His characters may meet to plot the next move in a deal only to end up discussing the etymology of the word “cautionary,” or the folly by which man tries to control his own destiny. The wordplay is rich, rhythmic, clearly the product of someone in love with language and everything it can both conceal and reveal, but listen closely and you will also hear the espousing of a philosophy of the world, where love is a mirage and only in death may we find something like redemption.
“The Counselor” is one of the best films Ridley Scott has made in a career that is not often enough credited for just how remarkable it has been. Perhaps that seems an odd comment to make about a director whose movies have grossed in excess of $1 billion at the global box office, who has three times been nominated for the directing Oscar, and today, at 75, is one of the increasingly few filmmakers who can command A-list casts and major-studio backing for projects not based on videogames, comicbooks, old TV shows or theme-park rides. Not many directors have still been active in their seventies, let alone doing some of their best work. Not many, either, can claim to have directed at least one great film in each decade of their career.
And yet, though he is their generational contemporary, Scott is not usually mentioned in the same breath as Coppola, Scorsese and the other “New Hollywood” enfants terrible, maybe because he began in England, and so much of what he has done has been viewed (by critics and the industry at large) as commercial endeavors, jobs for hire, movies lacking some perceived personal touch. When, in the summer of 2012, I organized the first complete North American retrospective of Scott’s films for the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the endeavor was met with more than a bit of skepticism. Indeed, some wondered why I hadn’t selected Scott’s younger brother, Tony (in recent years, a cause celebre among a certain strain of young critics and bloggers), instead.
I suspect this sort of thing doesn’t much bother Scott, who gives few interviews and can rarely be found on the awards-season campaign trail — less out of some Kubrickian reserve than because as soon as one project has wrapped he is invariably on to the next. (Even as you are reading this, he is preparing “Exodus,” with Christian Bale as Moses.) That may also be the natural disposition of a Geordie boy from the mining town of South Shields, who came of age during the air raids of WWII and somehow managed to make it into the movie business.
Scott was poor as a student but talented as an artist — good enough to be accepted to the Royal College of Art in London, where he made his first short film, “Boy and Bicycle,” set in Teesdale (where the family relocated after the war) and starring Tony as a restless teen who plays hooky from school and spends the day peddling his bike around the industrial seacoast, losing himself in stream-of-consciousness reverie. It was the first indication that, in Scott’s cinema, landscape and architecture would always be as significant as the people who pass through them.
If the throughline has not always been obvious in the 22 features he has made in the five decades since, that is partly because Scott is, on one level, a chameleon who can, like the great studio directors of the 1930s and ‘40s, adapt himself to the task at hand, whether Roman epic or gangster saga, seafaring adventure or fantasy futurescape. But if you want to know what Ridley Scott is really about, look no further than “The Duellists,” made in 1977 and deserving of inclusion on any list of the cinema’s great debuts. It is an adaptation of a Joseph Conrad novella in which two French Hussard lieutenants (Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine) challenge each other to a duel and proceed to spend the next two decades jousting wherever and whenever they meet, until no one can much remember the initial insult — real or perceived — that sparked the contest.
At the root of Conrad’s story is the tragicomic absurdity of men in war and the cyclical nature of history — themes Scott has returned to time and again in movies as disparate as 2005’s “Kingdom of Heaven,” which found in the Crusades of the 12th century an apt metaphor for today’s war-torn Middle East, and the recent “Prometheus,” which looked to the distant future in an effort to understand the very origins of the universe. There is, in that film, an extraordinary moment that hews close to self-portraiture, in which a fastidious cyborg (Fassbender again) gazes quizzically at one of Scott’s own favorite films, “Lawrence of Arabia,” trying to collapse the distance between himself and the screen. Much as we might imagine a certain young boy from coastal England doing once upon a time.
So it is not surprising that Scott has been drawn back into the desert and its promise of conquest and new beginnings, for the Crusaders as much as for the fugitive BFFs of “Thelma & Louise.” Now add to that list Diaz’s svelte Malkina, sitting pretty atop “The Counselor’s” vicious food chain. “Do you like it because it reminds you of someplace else?” asks her naive, burnt-sienna man-toy (Javier Bardem) in that same early scene, as they gaze out at the arid bluffs. “I like it for itself,” she replies. But make no mistake: We’ve been here before.