Gregory’s recent comment on my review of The Counsellor “It’s despicable, mean-spirited trash and Scott should do us all a favour and just retire” (he clearly didn’t like the movie), set me to thinking about what makes a good movie. I can well understand Gregory’s viewpoint regards The Counsellor, after all, it’s one shared by many. The film doesn’t follow the usual structure of a three-act movie, it doesn’t have a sympathetic protagonist that the viewer can identify with, it doesn’t have a ‘proper’ ending or sense of resolution. It rather undermines the basics of any film-school screen-writing class.
None of the characters have any redeeming features, the worst of them is the one that ends up ‘winning’ at the end, and the ‘hero’ is frankly a greedy fool that is swept up by everything and fails to effect the outcome in any way at all. Indeed, he’s a non-entity, caught up and lost in the events, his life unravelling and never really aware of what is really going on. Its no wonder it alienates so many viewers. Its so easy to dismiss it- at its worst, its a frankly masturbatory affair of a bunch of millionaire actors/film-makers playing at something ‘meaningful’ and ‘profound’ when its nothing of the sort, at its best though, its rather wonderful.
The thing is, so many things about The Counsellor are both infuriating and rewarding. Technically its remarkable what they got away with on such a low budget and shooting it in Europe in lieu of America/Mexico (you’d hardly notice unless you were told). And its so slowly paced, almost a throwback to 1970s film standards, as opposed to the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it way so many films are shot/edited now. But does it try too hard to be an anti-mainstream movie?
My own positive viewpoint likely has at least something to do with my fondness for Ridley Scott’s films. I enjoy his art-house credentials; there is always something rather subversive in his better movies, a heart of darkness if you will. And The Counsellor has this in spades. Its like Chaos Theory in action. Events unfold beyond the characters understanding and control. Characters slip into lengthy monologues about the nature of greed, life, justice…. but don’t really seem able to act upon their pearls of ‘wisdom’. Their ignorance is astonishing but this blindness, to me, rather mirrors real-life in that none of us are really ever in full control of our lives. In this respect, the film is refreshingly honest. So often we are lulled into false security by films that show characters ‘seizing the day’ and triumphing against the odds, but while that works well for movies life isn’t always like that. People fail; people suffer and die and don’t really understand why, sometimes they just suffer the vagaries of fate and are powerless. Its that sense of a Lovecraftian universe that I find interesting about The Counsellor. Its wildly self-indulgent, and yes, it would likely have played better with a cast of unknowns rather than a bunch of beautiful millionaire superstar actors, but that’s just how movies get made these days.
But is it a good movie? Ah, there’s the rub. I like it, but so many don’t, and I have to wonder, does it fail at the basics?
Does a good movie need a main character, a protagonist that we can identify with, empathise with? Does a good movie have to clearly set up in its first act its premise, its characters, its plot? Does a good movie have a middle act that further extrapolates its themes, develops its drama and crisis? Does a good movie have a final third act that solves this crisis with the main character reaching some kind of resolution, whether he succeeds or fails, is he or the audience wiser at movies end? Is there some kind of moralist credential to the film, for good or ill? Simply put, should a movie have a clearly defined beginning, middle and end?
It can be argued that The Counsellor has neither. We begin the film almost in the middle of things, events and characters already in motion, the main character learns little, ignorant of what is really going on (indeed, I don’t believe any of them ever really learn the instigator of their fall) and the film has little meaningful resolution at all, other than perhaps that you’re not paranoid, the universe really is out to get you. If the final shot had been a bizarre pull-shot out and away into orbit and beyond, showing an increasingly small and fragile Earth increasingly lost in the immensity of the cosmos, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised. At least the film would have perhaps suggested some meaning in a final flourish.
But that’s to me the point of the film. Nothing means anything, other than perhaps greed undermines all and to the hunter the spoils- justice is utterly subjective and sin is not always punished.
But is The Counsellor a good movie? Or is it a bad movie that I’m reading too much into? I guess even the worst of movies have their fans!