1) Ridley Scott is one of my favorite directors. 2) I’ve rarely seen any movie that Brad Pitt or Michael Fassbender didn’t make better. 3) I once met Cameron Diaz at a party and she’s the nicest person in the world. 4) NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, based on a book by Cormac McCarthy, is — more often than not — the movie playing on my second computer screen while I’m writing these posts. So why did I hate this movie enough to interrupt my normal blogging about movie structure to write about it?
Let’s go down the check list and see if we can find some answers. “Spoiler Alert”
1. CHARACTER / WHO IS HE?
“Counselor” (Michael Fassbender) is an affluent lawyer who wants to be rich so he can spoil his fiancé. His love for her is what drives him.
For her part, his fiancé Laura (Penelope Cruz), seems like she’d be happy in a dirt shack with a futon. So what’s his real motivation? Personal greed? The Michael Arndt rule says we should introduce characters doing the thing they love the most. In this case, we’re introduced to Counselor and Laura in bed. I enjoy movies that start with two people in bed as much as the next guy but it does little to emotionally bond me to the characters. Is this what their love is based on? Either way, I need more before I can invest in the love between these two.
2. OBSTACLE / WHY CAN’T HE GET IT?
His emotional problem is that he’s greedy. That’s his “curable social ill”.
As for the physical obstacle keeping him from getting the money he desires? Well…
Wanting to go from rich to crazy rich doesn’t seem all that strong a choice. Like wanting the room to be 73 degrees when it’s already 71. Also, there are much easier ways for a rich man to get richer in our current financial climate. You could pretty much throw a dart at the NASDAQ and come up roses right now. On top of that, it’s an inactive choice. We’re watching a guy wait by the phone for two hours. We don’t even see him handing money to anybody. All of the real action occurs offstage.
3. THE PROTAGONIST
Malkina (Cameron Diaz) wants money. Everybody else’s money. They are weak and she is strong and she doesn’t care who she has to kill, she’s going to get that nickel out of your pocket.
PROBLEM / FIX
I’m good with this one. Let’s move on.
Okay, let’s see if we can identify The Five Points of Story and then put them through our process. First up, the beats:
I. INCITING INCIDENT
Counselor decides to “invest” in the drug shipment. High risk, high reward. Actually, ridiculously high risk… very high reward.
In this case, I’m not sure if it’s all that strong a choice to have the protagonist initiate his own INC/INC. You get the feeling he could just walk away or make any off the choices I mentioned above. Everybody the Counselor meets goes on ad nauseam (ad-poetic, well acted-nauseam) about what a stupid idea getting into the Mexican drug trade for fun and profit is, but Counselor can not be deterred. He’s in it to win it. Even though he doesn’t seem to need it and his problems could easily be solved with a little downsizing.
For the record, there’s not much of a “debate” section here. No real exploration into his financial options. No attempt to sell a handful of the stuff in his apartment. Blackmail the people he works for. Nothing. Just sell drugs, make money. Damn the consequences.
There is none, really. Things just escalate.
For the sake of pace, the movie adroitly cuts between three stories. 1) Counselor, waiting for his ship to come in, 2) The sewerage truck full of drugs making its way from the Mexican drug lands to El Paso, Texas, 3) General cutaways featuring Reiner (Javier Bardem) and Westray (Brad Pitt).
So, the midpoint consists of the truck getting hijacked and everyone becoming aware that the deal has gone sideways and there’s now a contract out on Counselor (and probably the others).
It’s an escalation and not a turning of the tables. He’s been warned about this exact thing from the get go. Even then, Counselor doesn’t seem particularly motivated to get out of town. In fact, he sticks around for what feels like a month getting his affairs together. During this time, Laura, instead of getting in her car and driving like a bat out of hell, reserves a hotel room in Boise on her laptop, leisurely packs a suitcase and parks in an abandoned section of the airports long term parking under a sign that reads
“Will somebody please chop my head off?”
For his part, Westray (Pitt) gets out of Dodge, but he beds the first blonde who looks at him and promptly gives her access to his social security number, the account where he keeps all of his money and the fact that the hint to his online banking password is “Beatles drummer”. (Okay, I’m making stuff up but you get the point.)
Reiner (Bardem) doesn’t get out of dodge. Nor does he really do anything but get into his SUV, see people trying to kill him and then run away from armed men with a target on the back of his head that says “Free beer if you shoot here.”
III. ALL IS LOST
Laura is killed. But Counselor is not notified of it until the last frame of the movie. So, for our protagonist, it’s just another day in Paradise. There’s nothing to react to.
You could make a case that Counselor’s conversation with Jefe (Ruben Blades) is his all is lost moment because he calls for help and Jefe basically tells him he’s a dead man. But we knew that.
IV. SETBACK and V. SUPERFREAK
Let’s step back for a second. This is a cautionary tale so there’s no happy ending. No moment of magical unexpected wonderfulness. In this case, the Setback and the Superfreak invert. So, the Setback should be a wonderful moment of euphoria and hope… followed by a crushingly depressing Superfreak where life has no meaning. Do you follow? Sad endings are set up by happy moments and vice-versa.
So here, the climactic moment is Counselor being visited by a little boy delivering a snuff film of Laura’s death. Let’s call that our Superfreak. By our model, the moment before it should be a little ray of sunshine to set us up for the big fall, but instead, it’s a moment where we see what his life has come to. A man in the middle of Juarez with no money, hiding from his shadow.
You could make a case that the SB is another moment where we see protests in the street for all of the forgotten women of Juarez but it’s a little bit disconnected from our protagonist and his drive so I just want to chalk that sequence up to “local color.” If I missed some meaning here I’m sure my El Paso peeps will set me straight in the comments below.
In either case, the ending is purposefully relentlessly bleak. Which doesn’t bother me at all. I love love love SE7EN, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and FIGHT CLUB for their stark puke inducing hopelessness. So, how can we make this movie work as well as those did?
To the template, Robin
I. THE INC/INC
We need an INC/INC we can get behind. Cautionary tales are best when the protagonist makes an initial choice that we’d thought about but didn’t do because Mommy and Father Parks would disapprove. We enjoy the deliciousness of not calling home in HOSTEL or letting our ids go free in FIGHT CLUB and then, when it all goes south and the theatre lights turn on, we’re happy to continue paying our taxes and stopping at stop signs.
Maybe if Counselor had a specific dream of something he wanted that was just out of reach. He could have just found out that he’d lost it all and didn’t have the heart to tell his fiancé. A sick mother (hell, a cat with dietary problems) wouldn’t hurt. Maybe he wants to buy his fiancé’s citizenship. Do a bad thing for a good reason and the popcorn stays in my hand and doesn’t get thrown at the screen.
During the “debate” section, Counselor should get off his butt and do something. Find one of the zillions of choices that is equally dangerous and remunerative. Or think about going to Juarez, buying some drugs and smuggling them into The States yourself. I’m cool with anything that involves not sitting around and waiting for somebody to hand you a check.
Turn around and fight. Man how much would I love to see Michael Fassbender and Cameron Diaz go head to head in a cat and mouse thriller? Even if she killed him, I’d still love to see his mind working. Fassbender’s got a huge brain and you just know he can think out of the box. So, why not see that here? Diaz is cold and calculating. She’s seen it all before and she loves the hunt. It’s all there.
Okay, a little confession. I’m watching I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE 2 in the other window right now (don’t ask). At the midpoint, Katie (Jemme Dallender) gets to the US Embassy where she’s wanted to find sanctuary ever since she was kidnapped and forced into white slavery by brutal Bulgarians. She turns around and heads back to the house where she was enslaved but stops to return a Bible to the Priest who has given her food and clothing while she recovers from the brutality she’s experienced. As she leaves, the Priest says “You can’t run from this forever.” She says, “I’m not running,” and returns the Bible he’s given her opened to the page with the phrase “Vengeance is mine.” Yes! Exactly! A+! Gruesome movie, but gold star for a perfect MP!
The same is true of the MP in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) finds the tracking device that Anton Chigurh (Bardem) has been using to find him. He calls the main desk and no one answers. Chigurh has found him! The two men meet for the first time in an exchange of bullets through the door. The dynamics change. The stakes raise. My heart leaps into my mouth. And it’s on. Wow! Another great MP.
Even if Fassbender got his brains knocked in, I would still applaud him for not hiding in a corner for half of the movie.
III. EA2 / ALL IS LOST
He should receive the CD with the video of the dead wife here. It’s all truly lost now. The person he was doing all of this for is now dead. The antagonist has won. What’s the use of continuing? The beat is much cleaner and it would show the Counselor just what he’s up against. It would energize whatever we did in the Third Act.
The EA2 in NO COUNTRY, is the death of the protagonist. How’s that for losing it all? Chigurh then goes on to kill Moss’s wife during the movie’s remaining 25 minutes. McCormack could have killed the Counselor’s wife and still been walking on fresh ground in THE COUNSELOR. Dah well.
IV. SB & V. SUPERFREAK
I’ve gone over this already but a little film study gives us some possible solutions. When I scroll through some of my favorite cautionary tales, I see potential help from the police, from priests, friendly neighbors, concerned parents… anybody who could stop the madness. Of course, they’re usually killed right before the finale, but they give you the requisite sunshine to tee up the bleakness to come.
There are no cops here. Killings happen by the dozen and none of it shows up on the police scanner. You would think a lawyer would find some way to make the law work for him. Of course, conventional law would stink up the joint in this case… or be corrupt and lead Malkina (Diaz) straight to the Counselor so you’d have a ray of hope followed by the despair.
The SB! could be the same black out frame as is currently in the movie. A man sitting alone in the middle of a crappy Mexican ghetto hopeless, lonely and poor.
If you wanted a ray of hope I’d still have Counselor learn his cautionary lesson, but I’d have Malkina killed by an even greedier co-conspirator. Jefe could take her out after hearing all of the details of this missing $22M from the Counselor.
Who knows if it would have been better or worse in general. I can only go by me and I would have found this version less frustrating to watch. This is the kind of process I go through after just about every movie I see. Thanks for letting me take you through it.
Next time, back to the elusive Second Act!