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November 6, 2013

Film: A film noir no-no

‘The Counselor’
Directed by Ridley Scott. Starring Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt. R; 1:57. Now playing at Baxter Avenue Theatres. LEO Report Card: C

Cormac McCarthy is one of America’s greatest living novelists and possessor of our nation’s worst posture (seriously, watch his 2007 Oprah interview). McCarthy’s body of work is profound, powerful and formed by sentences fit to hang on gallery walls. Throughout his 50-year career, including the Pulitzer-wining “The Road” and the critical behemoth “Blood Meridian,” McCarthy has shown us humanity’s darkest corners and never flinched at reminding readers that good guys rarely win.

However, McCarthy is not considered one of our most cherished screenwriters (rest easy, Charlie Kaufman). It is important to remember the distinction between book writer and movie writer when watching his first Hollywood script — a star-packed morality tale with one glaring flaw.

At its core, “The Counselor” is film noir, a genre that depends heavily on identity — someone innocent is usually mistaken for someone guilty or dangerous. By this rule, McCarthy and director Ridley Scott are right on target. “The Counselor” follows a clean-cut El Paso attorney, Michael Fassbender, who doesn’t do drugs, loves his fiancée and is (spoiler alert) highly skilled at giving oral sex, as Penelope Cruz shows us in the movie’s first two minutes. Ah, but Fassbender also has some sleazy friends, cowboy millionaire Brad Pitt and a douchey Javier Bardem. These three buddies invest in a truckload of cocaine coming from Mexico for the score of a lifetime, and, you guessed it, the plan goes horribly wrong. When the drugs come up missing, the murderous cartel that owned the blow pins the robbery on the innocent Fassbender, and things get scary.

Trouble is, those thrilling things don’t happen until an hour into the film. By that point, “The Counselor” has probably lost most people’s interest. No, not because of the clumsy sexuality wedged into the film (spoiler alert … as in, this may spoil your appetite: Cameron Diaz has sex with an automobile). Not because of the disturbing volume of beheadings. And no, the film doesn’t lose its audience because of improbably dense yet poetic monologues on human nature and greed. McCarthy’s script loses its audience because when the real tension arrives, the viewer has no reason to care about these people.

That is McCarthy’s biggest blunder. Viewers need to sympathize with main characters in order for film noir to really work. An Average Joe hero gives noir audiences someone to root for, someone to stand in for themselves. The format simply doesn’t work with anti-heroes. From Fassbender on down, the film is loaded with Bentley-driving, sex-obsessed, fairly shallow millionaires.

Snagging our sympathy is why movie characters have puppies, or dying aunts, or adopt orphaned little brothers. But McCarthy is too much of a realist to insult readers with simplistic sympathy. “The Counselor” is about greed and how that lust bleaches one’s soul. In that respect, unlikable characters were the right artistic choice, but that still doesn’t make them fun to watch.