As a place to start this blog, The Counselor is as good as any. It sits at the nexus of so much I want to talk about here. The Modern West (not the Kevin Costner band, but I’m sure I’ll get around to that eventually), El Paso/the Border as well as the style and culture of all those things.
It’s like Traffic, but….well….look at Fassbender!
First, let me say, leave it to Ridley Scott to make a movie in which the first scene is six minutes of Penelope Cruz begging for various sex acts to be performed upon her and have the result be well shot but strangely boring.
Beyond that, this film is superficially set in El Paso and surrounding environs. Utah and England stand in for El Paso more often than not, but there’s some great pick up shots that manage to alllllmost capture El Paso, but not quite. And here’s why:
El Paso is a strange bird and hard to capture on film. It’s certainly Texas-y in a cowboy, wild-west kind of way, but it’s also very Mexican, sitting across the river from Cd. Juarez, with whom it shares a symbiotic relationship. (the two cities form the largest international metroplex in the world) There’s also a subtle international flavor to El Paso due the college, the military base, and all the cross-border commerce. We don’t have the West Texas drawl (that ends in Ft. Hancock) or a lot of cultural threads common to the rest of Texas (dancehall culture, oil, etc.) El Paso is closer to Phoenix and Santa Fe than Austin. El Paso and Juarez are very much the nucleus of their own little universe, and have been for a very long time.
El Diario de Juarez would have had this headline. (And better reportage on drug violence.)
For the most part, The Counselor could be set anywhere in the Southwest except El Paso and Juarez feature so prominently in stories of the drug wars. It doesn’t make as much sense to set this in say, Tucson. Michael Fassbender is the titular Counselor, who goes into some narco business with his weird club owner buddy Reiner (Javier Bardem looking like the sort of burnt super-fresa club owner guy I could kinda see living here.). Penelope Cruz is Laura, The Counselor’s love interest (she doesn’t get to do much) and Brad Pitt is Westray the cocaine cowboy wearing the same stupid 70’s western suits that every costume designer thinks SOMEBODY has to wear in this sort of movie. Cameron Diaz plays Malkina, Reiner’s girlfriend, a femme fatale who sets the wheels in motion for everyone to die. There’s some pretty obvious symbolism. (Malkina has cheetah spots tattooed on her, Reiner owns cheetahs. The cheetahs are loosed in an ugly bout of drug violence. Cheetahs are predators. So are jaguars. Jaguars are native to Mexico and the border regions, though they’ve been hunted to near extinction. Jaguars making a reappearance as Mexico erupts into horrifying spasms of violence would probably have been too obvious, I guess. And too Mexican. This movie seems strangely white washed for taking place in a city that is 82% Hispanic.) There’s some trademark McCarthy pondering that sound great despite the fact that no living human would ever utter such a thing in a real conversation. In general, you get your usual Hollywood scenes of grime covered Mexicans (who don’t listen to Mexican music or speak Mexican Spanish and only seem to work really grubby jobs) doing drug things while yuppie types fret about money and morality. The two rarely meet and when they do, it’s ugly and bloody.
Almost no one dresses like this unironically anymore.
As a portrait of life in El Paso, it fails. It also fails the first test for all artistic endeavors, it’s not very entertaining. Better direction could have taken the tension in McCarthy’s screen play and ratcheted it to a bloody denouement. As commentary on the modern West and the world in general it doesn’t have much to say beyond pointing out how abysmally disappointing humans can be when you throw money and power at them. McCarthy’s novels (and this screenplay) are essentially brainy action movies. The Coen Bros. seemed to grasp this with their adaption “No Country For Old Men” and they made a more passable stab at capturing the rhythms, culture and look of West Texas. If you stick with me, I’ll try to do the same.