When “The Counselor” was released last fall, it was an intriguing conundrum: how had Ridley Scott, the one-time bad boy auteur behind “Blade Runner” and “Alien,” taken the first original screenplay by legendary American author Cormac McCarthy (of “No Country for Old Men” and “The Road” fame), and turned in something so vacant and bizarre? We puzzled over this at the time, both in our review and in comparing the final version to the lengthier, filthier, more philosophically-minded screenplay. With the recent release of the Blu-ray, not only do we get a more satisfying cut of the movie, but its accompanying commentary provides a shockingly honest and insightful glimpse into who Scott is as a filmmaker today.
As Scott acknowledges in the commentary, the running time of “The Counselor” has ballooned from just shy of two hours to nearly two-and-a-half hours. That’s quite a difference. The transformative power of the additional content even dwarfs the extra footage that was reinstated into “Kingdom of Heaven,” his Crusades-era epic that was barely coherent in its theatrical form (it’s easier to understand what’s going on in the director’s cut, but it’s also still kind of boring). We won’t go into the details of what’s been altered, fucked with, and embellished, since our detailed script comparison does a good job of illustrating was missing. But this new cut is sexier, nastier, and infinitely more satisfying, turning “The Counselor,” formerly just a curio for Scott die-hards, into essential canon.
But what might be even more remarkable than the longer cut itself is the commentary track that serves as its delicious garnish. Entitled “The Truth of the Situation: Making ‘The Counselor,'” it’s a combination commentary and documentary, with the movie pausing seamlessly to make way for smaller documentaries that cover all aspects of the film’s production, from the casting of the characters to the animal trainers responsible for corralling the movie’s fearsome cheetahs. The whole shebang runs nearly four hours long, and is some pretty engaging stuff.
If you haven’t seen the film yet, then what follows could probably considered spoiler material and should be treated as such. This is really a highlight reel of what makes the commentary so special, just in case you don’t have four hours to kill on a movie that was largely dismissed upon its release.
The Nature of the Director’s Cut
One of the things that Scott brings up time and time again is the notion of a “director’s cut” and the importance it has. He is known for being a huge proponent of whatever home video format is en vogue, becoming one of the first filmmakers to really get behind both DVD and Blu-ray, seemingly for the limitless possibilities when it comes to versions of the movie that can be presented (and at the highest possible quality, at that). Even as home-watching is shifting to iTunes rentals and Netflix, Scott concocts elaborate packages for films like “Prometheus,” delving into every aspect of his creative journey. With this commentary, though, he seems to be second-guessing the theatrical cut as an entity, talking time and time again about how much more interesting and fulfilling this cut is.
Minutes into the commentary, he starts: “When you’re in the editing room, the dangerous thing is that it becomes like telling a joke again and again and again. Eventually the joke starts to not be funny. So you have to be careful that you’re not throwing the baby out with the bath water.” If there’s a case for a director throwing the baby out with the bathwater, it’s the theatrical cut of “The Counselor.”
Later on, he ponders this some more. You get the sense that as he’s re-watching the movie for the purposes of recording the commentary, this cut is growing on him. “The damage is that you get flippant and think this is slow, that is slow.” He pauses and then concludes: “When it’s not really slow.”
The Sex Scene, aka “The Most Luscious Pussy In All Of Christendom”
The director’s cut of “The Counselor” is noticeably more vibrant and more alive. There’s a sequence towards the end of the film where a major character gets murdered in the most grotesque fashion imaginable, and this version plays that sequence even longer, allowing us to luxuriate in the bloody decadence. (It makes the space abortion in “Prometheus” seem like a walk around the park.) But while he claims that “good taste” made him temper that moment, there was something guiding the pruning of another sequence: Fox executive’s prudishness.
One of the opening sequences in the movie is a sex scene between The Counselor, played by Michael Fassbender, and his adoring girlfriend, played by Penelope Cruz. In the theatrical cut, this sequence was neither here nor there; it was kind of dirty but never perverse enough to get any kind of jolt out of. Here, almost all of the sexiness that was on the page has made it back into the movie. Something that seemed inconceivable before.
Scott notes that the sequence has no additional nudity from the released version. “What was sexy was what was said,” the director says on the commentary track. Still: it was shocked Fox executives when he screened early versions. “I could hear gasps in the room when I first screened it at Fox,” Scott said. “It’s like… Come on guys, when was the last time you had sex?” On one of the pop-up documentaries, McCarthy (who was on set almost every day during production) echoes that same sentiment: “You get the sense that people who make Hollywood movies have never had sex.” Scott later continues, on the sequence’s seemingly-offensive nature (especially when compared to the racy stuff that’s on cable): “There were some that were offended by it so I had to trim some of it out. It’s extraordinary how prudish some people are. I couldn’t understand it. It’s passing beyond prudish–it’s ridiculous, especially when on television you can see something so tacky, cheesy, stupefying awful, and the kids are watching it.”
Towards the end of the sequence, Scott rightfully concludes: “This scene is much longer and in its length is quite outrageous in its dialogue. It’s very successful.”
Scott admits early-on that this is a “low budget” movie for him (somewhere “under $30 million”) and as such the production had to enact a number of cost-cutting measures, including, bizarrely, filming the entire thing in Europe. (There’s a lone North American shot where the Counselor is driving along the border that was picked up by an intrepid second unit crew.) Interiors and city environments were shot in London, while the desert stuff was shot in Spain. What makes the London part of the shoot even more interesting is that they were filming in the summer, where they had to contend with the logistical nightmares of the Olympics and the Queen’s Jubilee. This probably explains a lot of why the movie has such an off-kilter feel; it’s Scott’s idea of what Texas should be instead of what it is. (Concluded McCarthy: “Only the geologists will tell the difference.”)
Still, Scott has fun pointing out some of the landmarks that doubled for some of the characters haunts. A nightclub owned by Javier Bardem‘s Reiner character is actually, “this big thing on the East End called the Ministry of Sound. It’s a big, famous old disco.” Elsewhere, you watch his art department skeleton crew furiously covering up native signage and other aspects of the landscape that would give away where it was actually filmed.
Elsewhere, you learn that Scott’s style on the film didn’t involve a lot of preparation. He described it as almost like shooting a documentary in a way. This was aided in the fact that “The Counselor” was the first non-3D movie that the filmmaker had shot digitally. He takes a typically philosophical approach to the debate between digital and film: “It’s like an electronic cello—when well played, can you really tell the difference?” Later on he shrugs, “There was a time when I liked grain. Now I like to see everything.” (He also loves that all of the digital “prints” are perfect—and look exactly the same.)
While it becomes very clear that Scott has a pained relationship between the cut that went out to the theaters and the one that he is presenting here, and that he’s keenly aware of how much audiences can handle (he said that his adaptation of McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian,” written by “The Departed‘s” William Moynahan, was shelved because it was “irredeemably dark” and “the orchestration of death was so endless, I had to wonder if it should remain a book”), he can still take a stand.
Scott seems irritable when describing the audience’s somewhat befuddled reaction to the film. “Cell phones have made them more sophisticated,” Scott begins. “But I am finding out more so they want to go for the simplistic ride. And this is not simplistic at all.” Indeed: the movie was marketed as something much more familiar and streamlined, and Scott cannot be blamed for that. Later he revisits the topic of the audience’s confusion. “People, when they saw the film, were confused about why he needs the money. Most people need the money all the time,” Scott said. “People thought it was the diamond that put him against the wall. It’s like a good novel: sit there, read it and enjoy it.” (Several times he points out that there were a handful of critics who championed the film and seems endlessly grateful.)
I couldn’t agree with Scott more, especially when it comes to the director’s cut of the movie and its accompanying commentary track: sit there and enjoy. You’ll be rewarded with one of the weirdest, wildest, most fulfilling films of Scott’s career, one that I can see having a long, long life to come, which is kind of ironic given how brief most of the characters’ lives are in this movie. Oh well. The truth has no temperature.
“The Counselor” is on Blu-ray and DVD now. The extended version is only available on the Blu-ray package.