The release of The Light Between Oceans this week is the official signal that the pre-awards season is now underway. The period drama is a sumptuous and heartbreaking love story starring Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander as a husband and wife whose longing for children leads to life-changing consequences.
The film is another skilled turn from the cast, especially Fassbender, who must communicate much of his character’s emotions without much dialogue. It’s a feat the actor manages perfectly in a film which now ranks high for me when looking at the actor’s filmography, managing to top his turn in one of my favorite films of his – the highly polarizing thriller The Counselor.
Set on the U.S./Mexico border, The Counselor focuses on a hotshot DA (Fassbender) who enters into a deal with a group of powerful drug dealers. When the deal goes south, it seems no one can help him, not his client Renier (Javier Bardem), his contact Westray (Brad Pitt), or Renier’s entrancing girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz). As the dealers begin to close in, the young attorney scrambles to find a way out for himself and his devoted girlfriend Laura (Penelope Cruz).
Directed by Ridley Scott from an original screenplay by Cormac McCarthy, The Counselor is certainly not short on pedigree on either side of the camera. The marriage between director and screenwriter results in one of the most hypnotic worlds ever depicted in film. This is old school noir with modern trappings, and it doesn’t take long to feel a combination of unease and intrigue when faced with each of the characters and the world they inhabit. It’s a world which, although for the most part ordinary, appears alien at the same time. The world of The Counselor is one in which people dally in the darkness and more often that not become inevitably, if unsurprisingly, imprisoned as a result of trying to go against the laws that make up that world. As a character tells the counselor near the film’s end, “You are the world you have created. And when you cease to exist, this world that you have created will also cease to exist. But for those with the understanding that they’re living the last days of the world, death acquires a different meaning.”
The first time I saw The Counselor, I immediately got the feeling that I was watching a two-hour short film. There’s very little in the way of exposition and there a number of scenes which feel out of place upon first glance. The reason for this is because Scott and McCarthy have purposely chosen to shroud so many of the film’s details in absolute secrecy. We don’t know the nature of Renier’s background, the specifics of the deal at hand, or even the main character’s first name. Moreover, the villains themselves are never shown, forever keeping them hidden as invisible boogeymen always watching. Yes, there is something of a maddening quality to all of this, but such a move actually serves the film well. The Counselor presents itself as one of the few modern entries of its kind geared towards a more active audience, who are presented with a chilling puzzle in which every character’s move is a piece that proves more than vital to the overall sinister experience.
Material as dark as The Counselor certainly isn’t for everyone, nor is the kind of philosophical dialogue McCarthy is known for. Yet the entire cast of the film proves themselves worthy of such a project and script. Fassbender goes through a number of emotions, from false confidence to intense desperation, effortlessly. Pitt is eternally cool as a player who thinks he’s mastered the game at hand, while Bardem goes to town with his flamboyant character. On the female side, Cruz is lovely as the devoted Laura, whose pure belief in the man she loves is nothing short of heartbreaking. Diaz on the other hand is given her strongest role to date as the the immensely sexual and cunningly lethal Malkina, by far the film’s most dynamic character.
The Counselor was met with some of the harshest reviews of the year. While some praised the film’s many qualities, such as its cast and production values, many complained that the overall end product didn’t live up to the expectation and hype, particularly considering the caliber of talent on both sides of the camera, as others found the story jarring and the screenplay fragmented.
Regardless of these claims, many of which I will happily argue any day, no one can make the claim that the The Counselor isn’t an expertly made thriller. Take any one scene from the film and you will find intrigue and mystery loaded within every frame. We live in an era where audiences need to have everything explained to them, depending on filmmakers to guide them by the hand through their stories telling them, “Be afraid of this man. He’s bad.” The genius of The Counselor is how it bravely puts the integrity of its dark vision ahead of audience pandering. The result may have cost it large amounts of box office returns and critical acclaim, but in the end it’s the film that won since not many who have ever seen The Counselor will be able to let it go.