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.