Cormac, car sex and Cameron Diaz: Is The Counsellor Ridley Scott’s secret masterpiece?

As critics cry out for more camp in the filmmaker’s new movie, ‘House of Gucci’, Adam White revisits his deranged opus: a maligned cartel thriller featuring Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt and Cameron Diaz having sex with a car. Does it warrant a reappraisal?

Thursday 18 November 2021 17:35
<p>About as hyperbolically evil as Mr Burns: Cameron Diaz in ‘The Counsellor'</p>

About as hyperbolically evil as Mr Burns: Cameron Diaz in ‘The Counsellor'

“Overcooked and naff”. “A grievous disappointment”. “Odd, distant and vaguely embarrassing”. No one seemed to like Ridley Scott’s The Counsellor when it was released in 2013. Those critics weren’t wrong, but they also weren’t entirely right. See, The Counsellor is glitterbomb, switchblade-in-your-lipstick camp. It’s a misunderstood festival of accents, beheadings and Rosie Perez in a prison onesie that only becomes more enthralling each time you watch it. Which few do, because most seemed to give up midway through the first round.

Next week, Scott returns to heightened territory with House of Gucci, a true-crime story starring Lady Gaga as a glamorous Italian murderess. Early reviews have been kind, but some have criticised the film for not going full-tilt into camp, or following Gaga’s flamboyant lead when it comes to its overall tone. It’s worth asking: did the failure of The Counsellor frighten off Scott from the sordid and deranged? And is it his secret masterpiece?

The Counsellor stars Michael Fassbender – smack in the middle of a long and potentially ruinous run of off-beat choices – as a Texas lawyer embarking on some light drug smuggling. Penelope Cruz is his doomed fianceé, Brad Pitt his cartel go-between and Javier Bardem his boss. Cameron Diaz – as Bardem’s girlfriend – scowls on the film’s fringes with a gold tooth and a collection of pet cheetahs, and at one point has sex with a car windshield.

For Fassbender’s character, an easy payday becomes a long, winding road to hell. There are barrels of cocaine, electronic devices that disarticulate their targets, a henchwoman played by late-Nineties TV personality Donna Air. Nothing makes sense, archetypes reign supreme, and every character speaks in the same gravelly timbre, rattling off cod philosophy about the nature of sex and violence.

But good god is it potent. Novice screenwriter Cormac McCarthy – who hasn’t written any scripts since, possibly by force – doesn’t really know how to write a Hollywood movie. Scenes go on far longer than they typically should, and there is an audaciousness to its depravity that feels at odds with modern filmmaking. Scott rises to the challenge. His directing is dense and suffocating, like being trapped in a windowless room. Characters look as if they might keel over at any moment from thirst; luxury estates are photographed with the same stuffy sterility as jail cells.

Together, Scott and McCarthy come off like conmen: two oddballs who’ve convinced a major American film studio to bankroll their wacky experiment. Just a handful of US studio movies since The Counsellor – think Darren Aronofsky’s debauched Mother! or James Wan’s jaw-dropping Malignant – come anywhere close to its free-wheeling madness.

Similarly, no one since has delivered a performance quite as thrilling as Diaz’s. As automobile fetishist Malkina, she snarls every line and swans around in an endless parade of leopard-print mini-dresses and kaftans, like a raging psychopath in a boohoo ad. Contorting her face into expressions of sadistic glee or vulgar disgust, Diaz is about as hyperbolically evil as Mr Burns in The Simpsons. On top of that, her performance is entirely re-dubbed, reports at the time claiming that Diaz initially gave Malkina a thick Bajan accent not unlike Rihanna’s. After it bombed with test audiences, Diaz apparently had to re-record it all. Not to be overly dramatic or anything, but it is frankly a hate crime that raw footage with Malkina’s original voice is collecting dust on a 20th Century Studios shelf somewhere.

The Counsellor trailer

I worry that – echoing Scott’s modern timidity when it comes to camp – The Counsellor also frightened Diaz off acting. The actor didn’t do press for the film and then retired 18 months after its release, leaving The Counsellor the last gasp of Diaz’s often underrated fearlessness. Does Diaz’s performance work? In a conventional sense, not at all. But in a movie of massive swings and questionable taste, she sticks out for attempting to match its chaos.

I miss Diaz, and I miss this Ridley Scott. Forget Blade Runner; I’ll stick with the movie in which Brad Pitt’s head flies off outside Liverpool Street Station.

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‘House of Gucci’ is released on Friday 26 November, while ‘The Counsellor’ can be streamed on Disney+ now

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