The filmography of Sir Ridley Scott comes with an abundance of critical acclaim. Occasionally, even the lesser received films like Kingdom of Heaven get a lengthened shelf life thanks to extended director’s cuts that help flesh out narrative and thematic purposes. Scott is a director whose work presents itself with visual splendor and sharp production design that drip with atmosphere. The most common complaint in spite of all this is how, for all their technical strength, Scott films can feel cold. Not merely the look of them but in how they portray people. Lo and behold, when Ridley Scott makes his least accessible film to date, The Counselor, it is unsurprisingly spurned by the masses. And yet, the critical lambasting didn’t allow Scott to miss a beat.
Traversing the world of narcos, drug running, and hyper-stylized decapitations, The Counselor, in a nutshell, is a movie about bad people doing bad things and suffering terribly for it. Michael Fassbender’s every-man “Counselor” is just here to make a quick buck. Cormac McCarthy’s script involves drug dealers and money movers pondering their fate via morbid soliloquy, often citing metaphors in place of naturalistic dialogue. But these aren’t naturalistic characters. They’re gaudy, garbing themselves with loud clothing and all manner of materialistic spotlights. It’s indulgent, sure, but most of Scott’s work is. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with indulging, especially when the look of the film is as striking as it is. The flamboyance of its characters drive the film. Their greed, their lust, their distance from our reality gives them a nearly alien texture.
Cameron Diaz’s crime lord character Malkina owns two cheetahs for crying out loud. She’s not exactly subtle. Malkina is, however, clever. Using all the lavish decor and her looks to outwit, she’s the only character self-aware enough to avoid fooling herself with the brief comforts a life of crime has to offer. Everybody loses in The Counselor to varying degrees, but Malkina is the only one who manages to keep her head on. Literally, even. The cold, un-sterile vacuum of violence continuously drowns those unlucky enough to be found alongside the titular Counselor. It is a gorgeously realized, vast wasteland of hopelessness.
In fact, Scott attempted to adapt Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian” for a time. In an interview with TimeOut, Scott claimed his adaptation “would have been rated double-X…” He goes on: “the book is uncompromising, which is what’s great about it… [McCarthy] writes in visual images which are spectacular, so it suits me to the ground.” Scott’s pristine images are more than simple exercises in style; he himself is uncompromising in his execution of the narrative he’s devoted to. And what he’s devoted to in The Counselor is a harsh, relentless attitude that is perfectly aligned with a director who does not give a single f***.
Exodus: Gods and Kings was met with just as much negativity as The Counselor, if not more so, from people who rightfully condemned the film for blatantly whitewashing a story set in Egypt. While Scott’s “deal with it” attitude is often a breath of fresh air, his reasoning behind it is far from morally acceptable. “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.” A disappointing attitude from an enigmatic director. Though there are interesting tidbits on the director from Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton in the same Variety profile. “You’ve got to see Rid on the move to understand him. He’s totally kinetic. I’m absolutely sure he springs out of bed at 10 times the speed I do.” said Bale. Edgerton backs up the claims “I think he would be uncomfortable if he wasn’t always making stuff.” It’s an unstoppable engine of creation that bursts from within Scott, and he doesn’t give a damn what you think.
When working on Prometheus, Scott decided to take the concept of an Alien prequel to explore ideas he was interested in since the original film’s inception. Scott’s use of the series to explore our place in the ever expansive universe is met with terror, but Scott made sure to never let individuals lose hope, as the film ends with survivors literally ascending into the clouds like mythological gods and our supposed creators. Plenty of people hated it. It almost doesn’t feel like a mistake that one of his most adventurous works is followed up by a morally despicable pit of despair in The Counselor.
By the time Scott returned to the Alien/Prometheus series, his re-titled Prometheus sequel now Alien: Covenant, the audience wanted to see yet another Alien film from the director. Even though it contained variations on the xenomorph, Covenant is only using the beast to explore Ridley Scott’s interest in science fiction. Biblical references and imagery abound, with a film so vicious you can practically hear Ridley Scott shouting from behind the camera “You want your Alien movie? Here’s your damn Alien movie!” as a bio-mechanical killing machine bursts out of some idiot’s spine.
In Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, David is a product of humanity extending their hand. They want to deliver perfection and establish dominance over it. Look upon their works in David. Even with the goodness remaining in humanity’s working class folk, the institutions and corrupted ambitions leave even the most optimistic individuals dead on an operating table. The synthetic trickster eventually going on to create a harbinger of bio-mechanical death seems like a perfectly unfitting end for the species. In The Counselor, that widespread nihilism is erupting from every orifice, organic and man-made. But Scott finds power in that aggression.
The Counselor, while being a vicious enterprise in its own right, lingers with the violence it thrusts upon its greedy individuals. Unlike the bio-mechanical nightmare presented Alien: Covenant, which haphazardly sends its outlines of characters into a perpetual meat-grinder, we stay with the bodies of the deceased. Dialogue leaves the deaths feeling inevitable while visual framing paints the world with their innards. It is Scott at his most gleefully unhinged, not only spectating but actively participating in the display of violence and the ripple effect of its wrath.
If the late-great Tony Scott found humanity in the rarest corners of fiction, Ridley Scott has doubled down on showing how people can lose touch with humanity. With The Counselor, Scott paints a set of people who strive for basic pleasures; be it wealth, sex, or power. In doing so, these individuals are quickly seduced by their own vices before falling down a rabbit hole of ugly repercussions.
The harshness of The Counselor is nearly biblical, though in this testament there is no higher power to save them. At his lowest point, the counselor calls to a higher power in the kingpin Jefe for help. He’s too far gone down the rabbit hole by this point. Jefe tells him, “It is not for me to tell you what you should have done or not done. Every action produces consequences, which creates new worlds.” Scott examines the failures of these individuals, and the pitch black experiences that come with them. Judgement day has come and gone. This is the existence they’ve chosen. Scott doesn’t care if we approve of it; he merely calls us to bear witness.