Here’s the first thing you do after purchasing Fox’s Blu-ray of The Counselor: Throw the theatrical version away.
If you like, you can give it to a friend (or an enemy), or donate it to a local home for emotionally disturbed children. But if you didn’t see Ridley Scott’s elegantly poisonous neo-noir in theaters — and, based on its piddling box-office returns, you probably didn’t — there’s no reason to watch the theatrical cut now.
Opting for the longer version of a movie many critics found it tough to sit through in the first place might seem counterintuitive; it’s possible you won’t last 10 minutes, let alone the extended cut’s 138 . But the longer version does more than simply pile excess upon excess, adding more high-gloss treachery, more cryptic philosophy. Right from the first scene, in which a canoodling Michael Fassbender tells Penelope Cruz she has “the most luscious pussy in all of Christendom,” it’s a different, more savage beast. If the theatrical cut was batshit, the extended cut is the bat-shittiest.
Although The Counselor‘s theatrical release was practically a non-event, it’s clear that at some point the studio thought they had a potential hit on their hands: Why else commission a sprawling hybrid of director’s commentary and featurettes that runs a whopping three and a half hours? Scott proclaims himself “a man of few words,” but the cast and crew weigh in at length. (I particularly enjoyed Cameron Diaz’s acknowledgement that Malkina, the cheetah-spotted, car-humping murderess she plays, is “kind of a sociopath.”) Given that The Counselor has already developed a small but intense cult following, this elaborate exegesis will only stoke the fires.
The reality of the literal plot’s world merges much better and more dreamlike into the surrealist character conversations, and time and again Scott is using the exposition about life and purpose and consequences as a larger narrative painting of sorts surrounding these select glimpses into the workings of events that will bear down on the characters. Instead of the abrupt tonal shifts I felt in the theater, the characters are given much more time to create the main picture we’re meant to see here, so the editing feels less intrusive and those flashes of pure plot become sharper in their impact because they float as smaller but critical moments amid the much more developed sense of dreamlike experience.
Scott says near the beginning of his commentary that he sometimes has a tendency to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” in editing. Many of the moments that are gone, or shortened, are not hugely significant in and of themselves: Drug smugglers urinate in front of a majestic desert vista; Richard Cabral’s motorcycle courier answers a woman’s friendly inquiry with a shaggy-dog story whose vulgar punchline rivals the best of Jim Thompson. But whittling down the film only served to hollow it out, like a radio edit that strips a pop song down to chorus and verse but loses a transcendent guitar solo in the process. It’s an attempt to render the extraordinary — in whatever sense you choose to take that word — ordinary, and it doesn’t take. Like Willard going upriver in Apocalypse Now, The Counselor is a journey you take to the end or you don’t take at all.