Councilor Ridley Scott’s secret masterpiece?
“Overcooked and naff”. “A big disappointment. “Strange, distant and vaguely embarrassing.” No one seemed to like Ridley Scott’s The counselor when it was released in 2013. Those reviews weren’t wrong, but they weren’t quite right either. See, The counselor is a glitter bomb, a switchblade camp in your lipstick. It’s a misunderstood festival of accents, beheadings, and Rosie Perez in a prison suit that only gets more thrilling every time you watch it. Which few do, as most seemed to give up halfway through the first round.
Next week Scott returns to high territory with Gucci House, a true crime story starring Lady Gaga as a glamorous Italian murderer. Early reviews have been kind, but some have criticized the film for not going all the way with the camp, or for following Gaga’s flamboyant lead in terms of its overall tone. It is worth asking yourself: does the failure of The counselor to scare Scott from the sordid and the deranged? And is this his secret masterpiece?
The counselor stars Michael Fassbender – in the midst of a long and potentially ruinous string of quirky choices – as a Texas lawyer engaging in light drug dealing. Penelope Cruz is his condemned fiancée, Brad Pitt his cartel intermediary and Javier Bardem his boss. Cameron Diaz – as Bardem’s girlfriend – scowls on the fringes of the film with a gold tooth and a collection of pet cheetahs, and at one point has sex with a car windshield.
For Fassbender’s character, an easy paycheck becomes a long, winding road to hell. There are barrels of cocaine, electronic devices that disarticulate their targets, a henchman played by late ’90s TV personality Donna Air. Nothing makes sense, archetypes reign supreme and each character speaks with the same gritty timbre, telling the codfish philosophy on the nature of sex and violence.
But god is it powerful. Rookie screenwriter Cormac McCarthy – who hasn’t written a screenplay since, perhaps by force – doesn’t quite know how to write a Hollywood movie. The scenes last much longer than they typically should, and there is a boldness in his depravity that is at odds with modern cinema. Scott takes up the challenge. Its staging is dense and suffocating, as if locked in a windowless room. The characters seem to be thirsty all the time; luxury estates are photographed with the same stifling sterility as prison cells.
Together, Scott and McCarthy pose as crooks: two eccentrics who convinced a major American film studio to fund their wacky experiment. Just a handful of American studio films since The counselor – thinks Darren Aronofsky is debauched Mother! or Breathtaking by James Wan Smart – get close to his freewheeling madness.
Likewise, no one since has delivered such a thrilling performance as Diaz’s. As an automobile fetishist Malkina, she scolds every line and walks through an endless parade of leopard-print mini-dresses and kaftans, like a rabid psychopath in a Boohoo commercial. Contorting his face in expressions of sadistic glee or vulgar disgust, Diaz is about as hyperbolically evil as Mr. Burns in The simpsons. On top of that, her performance is fully dubbed, reports at the time claiming that Diaz initially gave Malkina a thick bajan accent similar to Rihanna’s. After bombarding with test audiences, Diaz apparently had to re-record everything. Not to be overly dramatic or anything, but it’s frankly a hate crime that raw footage with Malkina’s original vocals is dusting off on a 20th Century Fox shelf somewhere.
I’m afraid – echoing Scott’s modern shyness when it comes to camping – The counselor also scared Diaz to act. The actor did not do any press for the film and then retired 18 months after its release, leaving The counselor the last breath of Diaz’s often underestimated fearlessness. Does Diaz’s Performance Work? In a conventional sense, not at all. But in a film of massive fluctuations and questionable taste, she stands out for trying to match her chaos.
I miss Diaz and this Ridley Scott. To forget Blade runner; I’ll stick to the film in which Brad Pitt’s head flies off in front of Liverpool Street station.
‘House of Gucci’ releases Friday, November 26, while ‘The Counselor’ can air on Disney + now
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