CINEMA: There Will Be Blood

THE COUNSELOR (2013, directed by Ridley Scott, 117 minutes, U.S.)
CARRIE (2013, directed by Kimberly Peirce, 100 minutes, U.S.)

BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy has written his first script specifically for the big screen and it’s a corker of a film noir, generically titled, The Counselor. With a star-strewn cast including Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt and Penelope Cruz, you’d expect this film to be heavily promoted, but instead The Counselor is slinking into town without press screenings like the venomous little scorpion that it is.

All the elements of the classic film noir are here: a femme fatale, good men and their moral lapses, and the dread of fate circling its prey. What sets McCarthy’s tale apart are the bleak philosophical conversations that happen along the way, as the characters state their dour philosophies and try to impose their will on a world in which morality and law have been shot through the head and left for the vultures. The film has been accused of talkiness, but it is no more talky than classic ’50s noir like The Big Heat, and allows its screenwriter as much of a chance to show his stuff as the cameraman (that would be Dariusz Wolski of Prometheus here). Through his dialogue McCarthy explores his perverse desire to poke a stick at a black pit of hopelessness that has earned this star-filled crime drama a rep for being as too dark to love. But if you can gather the guts to stare into this abyss, the abyss will boldly stare right back.

McCarthy loves that post-apocalyptic landscape, and what better modern location than Mexico’s Ciudad Juárez, one of the most violent places on Earth? We should know that Malkina (Cameron Diaz) is at the heartless center of all this mayhem. When we first meet her, she’s enjoying the spectacle of her pet cheetahs chasing down jack rabbits while lounging in the desert with her club owner boyfriend Reiner (a spiky-haired and anxious Javier Bardem.) If you’re wondering if Malkina relates to the emotionless hunter, she shares the leopard’s spots, which are tattooed along her back and up over one shoulder. Reiner is acting as a middle man for the titled character (Michael Fassbender, referred to in the film only as “The Counselor”) who wants to make a one-time score by transporting $20 million in cocaine to Chicago. What could go wrong? Plenty. Let’s just say that a lot of characters lose their heads, and not just figuratively either.

The film opens with some sweet lovemaking between “The Counselor” and his soon-to-be fiancée Laura (the ever-lovely Penelope Cruz) a scene so isolated in its compassion that you know the participants are going to pay big at the end. We may know that doom is on the march but it is the characters we meet and the conversations they have that give The Counselor its uniquely acrid taste. You have Bruno Ganz (the angel from Wings of Desire) giving a lesson in diamonds and their flaws, a dressed-down Rosie Perez offering sexual favors in the prison visitors room, Ruben Blades as a cartel head discussing the nature of reality and Edgar Ramirez (star of Olivier Assayas’ Carlos) as a squeamish priest. Like Mamet or Eugene O”Neill, the conversation is far from naturalistic, it is more an avenue for McCarthy to muse on the fatalistic nature of our times and this fantastic middle-aged cast puts over these conversations with a weary aplomb.

Brad Pitt stands out amongst the cast as the big time dealer Westray. It’s a great role. Dressed like a cowboy in white Pitt captures the wariness and obtuse manner of a man who lived in the shadows and watched every step for years. Westray tells a lurid tale of the instrument of murder favored amongst cartel hit men which, once looped around a victim’s neck, mechanically tightens until its razor wire beheads. Just another disturbing idea to plant in your mind, foreshadowing the dreadful fate lingering above these characters’ heads.

This sort of modern noir would be right up the late Tony Scott’s alley (the film is dedicated to him) but it is his brother Ridley Scott who directs, bringing a much cooler and more restrained style to the proceedings than one might have expected from the younger Tony. While Malkina aspires to be as single-minded as the leopard chasing down its prey, Scott’s cool little gem succeeds at that vision as well. Before the film’s final credits roll, the last player standing shrugs it off as a meaningless scuffle at the end of history, just something that happened before the real slaughter started.

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I’ll admit to low expectations for the new adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie, so I was happy to find this new version, directed by Kimberly Peirce is a pretty sturdy telling of the tale. Actually, the story is probably beyond destruction; who doesn’t relate to a kid getting revenge on cruel classmates? But while Peirce does earthy, believable work with most of her young cast, the film doesn’t outrun the basic feeling of “why bother?”

Sure there’s a little cyber-bullying worked in and the religious aspect is pumped up a little but Peirce and her script, co-written by one of Glee‘s writers, doesn’t find anything new in the blood-soaked saga of Carrie White. The story begins when telekinetic powers arrive along with Carrie’s (Chloë Grace Moretz) untimely period. After trauma in the shower room, Carrie researches her growing powers while shamefully hiding them from her classmates and her religious zealot mom (Julianne Moore). Her classmate Sue (Gabriella Wilde) takes pity on poor Carrie and enlists her boyfriend (Ansel Elgort) to lift her spirits by asking the telekinetic teen to accompany him to the prom. It turns out to be the worst prom ever.

Peirce brings a nice sense of reality to high school and the young adult performances (working with young actors might be her specialty) but the story is severely undercut by Chloë Grace Moretz’s one-note portrayal. A natural knock-out beauty whose strong suit has been her sassy perkiness, Moretz (of Kick-Ass fame) was probably miscast from the start in an attempt to bring some star power to the film. A little gray make-up and darkness around the eyes can’t sell the idea of mopey Moretz being an outcast introvert. Try as she may, she can’t seem awkward. She’s like the stereotypical librarian you know is going to be a hottie once she takes off her glasses and undoes her bun. As the Queen of the Prom, Moretz looks totally in her element amongst the popular crowd, further hindering our belief in her transformation from toadette to princess.

You hate to compare her work with Sissy Spacek’s spooked-out Carrie White from DePalma’s 1976 version. Early in her career Spacek specialized in playing naive adolescents with the blank innocence of a baby rabbit, but the difference of this concept of Carrie goes deeper too. Once the demon is awakened at the prom, the DePalma version showed the violence unleashed almost uncontrollably from Carrie’s entire body. Here, Moretz’s Carrie flails her arms like an orchestra conductor, giving a level of sadism to Carrie’s revenge that mars the character’s innocent core. Carrie also orchestrates a more ghoulishly drawn-out end for her meanest tormentors, inviting us to cheer the Columbine-style mayhem without savoring that ambiguity. Still, Peirce’s details are vivid and the pace never lags. The lesson at the finale? Proms are like remakes, a bit over-rated but if you get a little action like you were hoping, you’ll end up telling your friends you had a good time..