Sex and Rotten Tomatoes:

On The Counselor

Lets throw out some numbers. 92. 98. 34. Those are Rotten Tomatoes percentages. Lets throw out the films those numbers correspond to, in no particular order. The Counselor. Aliens. The Shining. So I’m not going to ask you to match them up, because that would be juvenile and a waste of time. Instead I’ll just clarify which movies go with which scores. The Counselor rocks a solid 34% on the Tomato Meter. Aliens takes the highest with a score of 98%, marking it almost a perfect movie. The Shining, then, is left the second highest with a score of 92%. Still a pretty high score.

Lets talk about the pedigrees of these movies, before we even get into the actual quality of the films themselves. The Counselor was directed by Ridley Scott, man behind Alien (97%) and Blade Runner (91%) and written by Cormac McCarthy. Lets turn to Wikipedia for some thoughts on him:

Blood Meridian (1985) was among Time magazine’s list of 100 best English-language books published between 1923 and 2005 and placed joint runner-up in a poll taken in 2006 by The New York Times of the best American fiction published in the last 25 years. Literary critic Harold Bloom named him as one of the four major American novelists of his time, alongside Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon and Philip Roth, and called Blood Meridian “the greatest single book since Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying“. In 2010, The Times ranked The Road first on its list of the 100 best fiction and non-fiction books of the past 10 years. McCarthy has been increasingly mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Aliens was directed by the mastermind James Cameron director of the inarguably wonderful Avatar. What’s that you say? Avatar wasn’t actually that good? Lets move on.

The Shining. Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece. Its no secret how I feel about Kubrick. He’s a brilliant, god-tier director. It’s hard to pick best movies from his filmography, because almost all of them are masterpieces, but The Shining might be especially masterful. It’s both a wonderfully insidiously frightening horror movie with crazy-iconic images and a film nerd’s (and conspiracy theorist’s) paradise, filled with clues to a deeper plot and meaning.

It’s not news that Rotten Tomatoes is a horrible measure of quality when it comes to film. These numbers are seriously mind-blowing to me though. Aliens might be one of the more overrated movies I’ve ever had the pleasure of viewing. Sure it’s a fun action movie that’s slightly influential, but so is The Rock. Aliens, like all James Cameron movies (except Abyss), is about how awful war is, a message he like to convey by dousing every inch of his movie with thrilling war-porn. He’s an amazingly unaware director. The best thing you could say about Aliens is that it’s about Vietnam, in which case he’s equating the Vietnamese with the cannon-fodder aliens in the film. Claiming that movie is a 98 on a scale of 100 is kind of like saying Outback Steakhouse is the best food you’ve ever eaten. It might be better than McDonald’s, but it’s still ultimately just feeding the intelligent tumour named Steve that’s developing in your stomach. It’s not a grading system unless you’re comparing what you’re grading to actual masterpieces.

Masterpieces like say, The Shining. Which is a goddamn masterpiece. The best horror movie ever made? Probably. I seriously can’t even articulate how much better The Shining is than Aliens. Even if Rotten Tomatoes can only ever serve as a measure of accessibility why is the critical rating even worse, with Aliens getting a 93% and The Shining getting HOLY SHIT 63%. That’s not measuring accessibility or critical consensus; it’s measuring a goddamn case of mass hysteria.

And that brings us to The Counselor, the movie I actually want to talk about. Top critics rating of 23%. A lot of critics I read defended this movie, but it seems like everyone else on the planet (including some critics I read occasionally) loathed this movie. Which is legitimately one of the most interesting cases of misplaced expectations I’ve ever seen. And I thought Elysium suffered from an acute case of mistaken identity (mainly because no one remembers what kind of movie District 9 really was). For some reason nobody went into this movie without a horribly deluded image of what to expect, and fewer were capable of conceding to the unexpected tone.

The thing is this is barely a Ridley Scott project, that’s the first and most important distinction. This is an original Cormac McCarthy script, and as the superior artist the overriding vision falls more on his shoulders than Scott’s. This is really a Cormac McCarthy movie. For some reason few people understood that. Maybe they mistook the tone of No Country for Old Men as being the sole creation of the Coens, when in fact it is born of a wonderfully accurate attempt at translating the novel to the big screen.

It seems hordes of filmgoers went into this movie looking for an exciting heist movie. It’s a lot like the way you can sum up No Country for Old Men as “an ex army sniper goes on the run after stealing millions of dollars from heroin dealers” and cast the film as something very different from the philosophical treatise the Coens actually made. The Counselor might sound, and even have looked, like a heist movie. But entertainment is not what Cormac McCarthy strives for, and thinking an original script he’d written would follow conventional story beats betrays a deep-rooted misunderstanding of the man’s writing. Or, more likely, no understanding of his writing.

(This is why going into movies with an open mind is really important.)

I watched this for the first time in the middle of reading No Country for Old Men, so McCarthy’s signature style was fresh in my mind. He’s, first of all, an incredibly somber writer. He has no interest in the kind of high-energy, thrilling heist that viewers seemed to be looking for in The Counselor. He’s a grim, philosophical writer driven by thematics. Part of the reason No Country for Old Men is such a wonderful movie is that it perfectly captures the tone of McCarthy’s book. He’s sometimes relegated to “that guy who I can’t read because of his weird lack of punctuation” but he’s so much more than that. His books are poignant and beautifully written. He subverts typical story structure in a deliberate and frankly brilliant way. You know how as No Country for Old Men goes along it shows less and less of the dramatic confrontations? To the point where (SPOILERS) the main character’s death happens offscreen? Yeah the Coens got that from the book. Like verbatim.

Which is why The Counselor, as a work of art, sort of has to rest on Cormac McCarthy’s shoulders. It’s an ugly film filled with unlikeable characters and a bleak worldview. Cormac McCarthy’s deliberate side-stepping of conventional plotting makes the whole plot feel more like an anti-movie then the anticipated “heist” (I’m leaning on that term because it came up a few times in my perusing of The Counselor reviews, I didn’t just pull it out of my arse and repeat it ad nauseam). These are all things that can turn off unprepared viewers, even, apparently critics who should know better.

I did find negative reviews of The Counselor actually founded on deeper complaints, although they were rarely convincing. Some were born of bones the writers had to pick with Cormac McCarthy as a writer. These tended to be suspiciously undefended. Nothing is more questionable to me then a piece of major criticism with absolutely nothing backing it up. “This thing is bad” does not constitute an actual argument, and founding your whole opinion on just that is lazy and betrays an unjustified opinion. Another line of complaint I came across, one that actually read like true criticism, levied accusations of sexism at McCarthy’s script. Which I would be willing to read more thoughts on. However, I’m inclined to give the script the benefit of the doubt after the first viewing. There are some sexual themes in the movie, and certainly the female characters tend to be questionable… Actually there are really only four major characters, and two of them are female, and one of them is a fine person, just a bit sheltered. Accusing the script of sexism seems strange when everyone in this movie is basically despicable for one reason or another. The two male characters might say some gross things, but that seems like it’s absolutely the characters’ views and not the script. It’s a little bit like saying Wolf of Wall Street glorified the lifestyle it depicted, except that parts of Wolf of Wall Street were fun and almost all of The Counselor is grim and disturbing.

But of the criticisms levied at the movie this is perhaps the most legitimate, and the most deserving of consideration. Because almost every other complaint is weirdly off-base.

The Counselor is, in so many other ways, truly brilliant. Cormac McCarthy’s script is harrowing and gripping. It’s occasionally even funny (the dog food story). Most importantly though it’s thematically rich. Exploring issues of sexuality more than perhaps anything else, with attempted and successful seductions, grossly offered sexual favours, mythically described snuff-films, romance, sexual experimentation, and manipulation running through the film. The film’s depiction of the drug trade is actually horrifying, as is its depiction of violence. There’s a real Eros and Thanatos thing going on. Perhaps McCarthy is exploring the heightened extremes of human interaction, especially in the kind of people that flock to the fringe and dangerous world the film takes place in. The people who survive are those who view everything as a weapon, sexuality included. The ones who die or suffer are the ones who get attached to people.

The biggest problem with the movie is, unfortunately, Ridley Scott. In all fairness “problem” is actually a bit of a stretch. Here’s Ridley Scott’s MO, for those not in the know. He’s essentially a work-for-hire type guy. He’s a lot like David Fincher in that sense. They’re directors, and they both have almost no ability or interest in writing. Ridley Scott is a great director, if he gets a good script. He gets a great script with The Counselor, and he transfers Cormac McCarthy’s vision to the screen serviceably. The movie looks great. The cinematography is lovely and the framing is frequently eye catching and appropriate. Action sequences are well edited and shot. He fills the movie with great actors and gets great, fitting performances from them. All this means that Cormac McCarthy’s script gets turned into a movie that captures all the visual depictions of the text effectively. Which is why you can’t really call Ridley Scott’s contribution to The Counselor “a problem.” Ridley Scott never once detracts from the brilliant script he was handed. The thing is he also never adds anything to it. Such an artistically minded script merits artistically minded direction. No Country for Old Men is a masterpiece because Joel and Ethan Coen are brilliant artists too. They take the brilliant source material and turn it into a brilliant movie that does several things that only a movie could do. They translate the book to a film and make a unique piece of art in the project. The Counselor is like a great visual illustration of the script. It may be pretty and filled with great actors but it never once does anything brilliant that doesn’t come from the script.

That’s what relegates The Counselor to “great movie” and not a masterpiece. It’s absolutely worth watching, and horribly underrated, and a fairly impressive work of art. And all of that rests with Cormac McCarthy’s. Ridley Scott is just along for the ride, and that ultimately holds this movie back a bit. Which is a shame. Despite it’s strange reputation as an abject failure it really skirts around achieving excellence.

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Harry Edmundson-Cornell is obsessed with comics and film and writing, and he fancies himself a bit of an artist. He's dabbled in freelance video production, writing, design, 3D modelling, and artistic commissions. He mainly uses Tumblr to keep track of what he's watching and reading and listening to. Occasionally he uses it to post original works. You can find his email and junk there too, if you want to hire him or send him hate-mail.

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  1. Mario Lebel says:

    Nice piece.

    I wouldn’t know that The Counselor is underrated because I never once looked it up on a review aggregate site. That sort of thing is meaningless to me. I did read reviews after I watched it and I get reading them until I found a positive one. I really liked the movie but al the reviews I’ve read up until now were very negative. It’s nice to read another person’s thought on it, especially because you articulate your thoughts well and you don’t reduce anything to catch phrases and numbers. You could say that of all your reviews.

    As for Ridley Scott, I think you’re a little hard on him but I get your point. I personally think it’s good that there is still such a thing as a work-for-hire director as several movies have been ruined by directorial flourishes that bring nothing to the movie. I think it’s admirable that someone like Scott knows can recognize a good script and build his movie around that as opposed to using the script as a starting point and make unnecessary or radical changes during the rest of production.

    • I really like several Ridley Scott movies. I think Filmcrithulk put it best though when he described him as an aesthetician. I think he’s artistically minded (the movies he’s produced are AMAZING) but I don’t think he could write a movie on his own, or do a lot to add to a scripts themes. I like his movies, but he’s not a perfect match for something like this. Basically I’m splitting hairs, I just think that he might be the difference between this movie and a masterpiece like No Country.

      And thank you for the compliments, I always love hearing from readers.

  2. Glenn Taylor says:

    I don’t think anyone (especially here) would argue with you that Rotten Tomatoes is a ridiculous forum for establishing the worth of a film, however your illustration of this is far from conclusive.

    To state that The Shining is obviously a better film than Aliens without establishing any argument above “It’s a masterpiece,” is not convincing especially when you throw words around like God-tier director. Your obvious hero worship of Kubrick and your disdain for Cameron have tainted your opinion into not focusing properly on the texts that you’ve selected.

    I won’t argue that The Shining isn’t a good film, it’s one that probably deserves a higher tomato rating (if that means anything at all) but even in Kubrick’s oeuvre it’s not as strong as say: 2001, Full Metal Jacket or Clockwork Orange which fall much closer to the “Masterpiece” category. Nicholson’s cartoonishly over-acted portrayal of Jack, and the deterioration of genuine unease into a man-chases-woman-around type of narrative damages the film greatly.

    In your assessment of The Counselor you seem to be able to easily disassociate yourself from Auteur theory by stating that it was McCarthy’s vision not Scott’s, yet in your discussion of Kubrick and Cameron you appear to be stuck within this mode, even to the point of saying that the quality of Avatar, which was made almost 2 decades later, should affect how we view Aliens. Should we dismiss an artist’s work due to their latter day sins?

    To say that all of James Cameron’s films are about war is an overly simple way of looking at his work (and especially ridiculous if we remember his Titanic, which I’d prefer not to). Both the Terminator films and Aliens are full of interesting philosophy. They focus on the creation of surrogate family units, and have a lot to say about the way time effects human reality.

    Cameron did point out that Aliens was his Vietnam War film (although only as a critique of America’s underestimation of its enemy), and there definitely is an element of contradiction in how weaponry and war are displayed in a thrilling way. But Science Fiction in Hollywood has always been guilty of these type of issues: Where stories of fear of technology are rendered by the exact technologies they are warning against.

    Aliens is also part of one of the most complex and interesting film franchises of all time. It’s difficult to view the films outside of the series, and the work of Giger, Moebius, O’Bannon as well as the careful curation (at least till AVP) by producers Gordon Carroll, David Giler and Walter Hill are integral to the overall vision of the series. Check out Stephen Mulhall’s book On Film for a pretty good introduction to the philosophy presented in the Alien quadrilogy.

    If you had presented a more genuinely agreed example, perhaps something like The Exorcist 87% vs Nightmare on Elm Street 94%, or something you felt less strongly about your argument would have been stronger.

    • First off, thanks for commenting Glenn I legitimately always appreciate it. Second off there are a lot of problems with some of what you put forward, and I’d love to address some of them, if you don’t mind.

      First off, on The Shining, I think you’re oversimplifying a very complex climax simply because its a little faster-paced then the rest of the movie. There’s a ton of important stuff going on, and I think its reductive to claim that its a deterioration. The Jack Nicholson debate is obviously an age old one, and we just fall on opposite camps. Jack never seems sane in that movie because he never is, but I feel like this isn’t the most pertinent time to discuss The Shining.

      This was, ultimately, a review of The Counselor and not an article on The Shining, Kubrick, Aliens, or James Cameron. That’s all representative of preamble I’m using to paint a picture of the critical misunderstanding of The Counselor. If you read through some of my back-catalogue you’ll fins more complex versions of my opinions on Kubrick, and you’re welcome to hunt them out if you feel my take on his work needs more justification.

      Later you talk about agreed upon examples, and I don’t love using those terms, but Kubrick is largely accepted by the critical community as one of the greatest directors there ever was. If all you’re looking for is consensus on the opinions I espouse, surely you can’t fault me for that one?

      Here’s why I hold Cameron and Kubrick ultimately responsible for their movies and Scott less so for the Counselor. Kubrick and Cameron both were heavily involved in the writing process of their films. In fact both were the chief writers. They were involved in everything from the story to the dialogue. Ridley Scott was not, and never has been. He’s primarily interested in the final look and feel of his films, and his visual style has auteur components to it. But he had no involvement in what the movie is saying or what its about, or any other things that make it a work of art. He brings a lot of visual artistry to the table, but because he didn’t bring anything to the actual core of the film, he can’t be the chief artist. Fincher is the same thing. They have things they like to look for in scripts, and they have an auteur-like style, but because they don’t write their stories it’s hard to consider them true-blue auteurs in that way. The fact that both their films live or die on the script kind of proves this. I hope that makes sense, and doesn’t sound too dismissive, because I really and truly love movies this guys did.

      My problems with Aliens might honestly require an article unto itself. Talking about auteurship is a good segue, because Cameron is totally an auteur. He brings a lot of similar thematic interest to his movies (and lets be honest, Titanic was half conceived of just to justify scientific expeditions, so its hard to count). The thing is Cameron is rarely in control of his themes. You let him off the hook for glorifying war, the very thing he preaches against, and that’s way more leeway then he deserves. Imagine if someone made a movie that was nominally against abuse, but glorified it. Cameron is obsessed with war, and consequently looses sight of how to successfully communicate his themes.

      I love Alien. I think Alien3 is incredibly interesting. I think Alien Resurrection is a fascinating disaster. Aliens to me is just a B-movie everyone decided was a masterpiece. Like I said that might be a idea I need a larger article to communicate, but here’s the short version: it’s themes are simple and clumsy. It takes an interesting and unique first film in a movie and makes a sequel by taking it an more mainstream direction, dumbing down the ideas and softening the edges to make a blockbuster. Then it turns it all into a rote action movie. (I know most people disagree with me, I know, and I don’t expect to convince you with this comment or anything like that. I’m going to get around to explaining my ideas at length, and I’d love to discuss that again there. For now let me just acknowledge that I truly believe its one of the more wildly overrated movies out there, and call it a stalemate.)

      And honestly your last request is problematic for a few reasons. I don’t want to offend you or anything like that, but complaining that I made my arguments with less-obvious and agreed upon examples doesn’t sit well with me. I have no plans to start writing about things I don’t care about, or using examples everyone agrees about to make my point. Writing an article that merely confirms already decided upon opinions is of no interest to me, and personally I prefer seeking out writing that makes me think about things in ways I wouldn’t have. I understand you just disagreed with my examples, and didn’t mean anything personal by it, but I just wanted to put that out there.

      And honestly, there is no question in my mind that every single Kubrick film I’ve seen is a more complete work of art than Aliens, including The Shining. Not as entertaining maybe, but I’m generally looking for more than that in my art.

      Anyways, I really do appreciate you commenting, and while I expect neither of us will convince the other of anything, I do love starting debates and conversation. I also hope I didn’t come across to harshly, I worry about that when I write some of these comments and I promise that’s not the intent, I just enjoy the conversation. Have a heart chakra ✡

      • Nice write up. However, I too have disagree with your take on Cameron’s themes. Every film deals heavily with environmentalist’s nature vs technology, even piranha. He most clearly articulates this in Avatar and Abyss. But his integration of the corporations in Aliens also established this theme. That being said is Franco’s Child of God or Thortons All the pretty horses or Sunset limited going to get a review?

      • Thanks Christopher!
        I’m going to resolve to not discuss Cameron for a bit, it’s going to be better if I straighten my thoughts out into a proper article for the sake of better communication.

        (Although I’m not with you on Avatar or Aliens, but I think Abyss is his most coherent film)

        As for the other Cormac McCarthy films I don’t have immediate plans, but I’m definitely interested in getting there at some point!

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