Cameron Diaz’s Bravura Performance in The Counselor: a Second Look

What, you thought The Counselor wasn't going to make it?

Writing at Film.com, Vadim Rizov has an interesting little piece on the hyperactive life cycle of controversial films in this, the age of Twitter and smarttakes and insta-counter-smarttakes. After looking briefly at the history of the phrase "film maudit," he turns to Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy's critic-dividing new release, The Counselor:

Same-year reclamation’s one thing, but how’s two weeks for a death-rebirth-backlash life cycle? "The Counselor" was screened an ominous three days before release for American critics — not as bad a sign as no advance screenings at all, but a move unapologetically meant to circumvent publications with long-lead requirements. Initial reviews were largely brutal …

Eight days (!) after the film’s release, Chuck Bowen was able to publish a piece already in backlash mode against a now too-celebrated work. … His piece succinctly outlines what happened: an initial wave of "poisonous reviews" proved "too poisonous," and "these instances of hyperbole have probably emboldened ‘The Counselor’’s inevitable and eventual status as a misunderstood masterpiece within enthusiastic circles that unquestioningly accept Scott’s, and particularly, McCarthy’s artistic sainthood."

Rizov correctly notes that critics feel starved for something new and exciting (the old "interesting cinema" trap I've written about previously), leading some to overpraise a marginal work in response to rejection by audiences and their fellow writers.

Allow me to add my two cents to the backlash to the backlash to the backlash: Cameron Diaz is being unfairly attacked for her turn as Malkina in The Counselor, which will one day be recognized as an expert turn in a dark, horrifying film.

"Diaz is kind of supposed to be playing an evil, tattooed, bisexual vamp, but she doesn’t get much screen time and feels painfully miscast," wrote Andrew O'Hehir. "In a movie about irrevocable choices, Diaz's casting is a spectacular blunder. A lissome, amiable, better-than-capable comedic actress, Diaz is called on to be a brilliant femme who may, or may not, be fatal. It's a pivotal role; her turn is wince-worthy," wrote Lisa Kennedy. Even many critics who liked the film were cool on Cameron. "Diaz focuses her performance on Malkina’s spitefulness, but displays no psychological nuance in the character," wrote Jonathan Robbins. "The dialogue describing [the counselor's] descent sustains our fascination for most of this thrill ride, until Diaz gets into the act with some final-curtain blather about the sexualized thrill of the hunt," wrote Joe Williams.

I don't get the Diaz dings. She is a primal force in the picture, serene, sneering, and sexual all at the same time. The look she gives choir girl Laura (Penelope Cruz) as the pair discuss Laura's willful ignorance of the world around her is chilling and terrifying, the sort of glare that pierces you to the core. She sees the world of The Counselor for what it is and moves through it with a lithesome grace and mental dexterity unrivaled by anyone else in the film.

Some have knocked Diaz's character for a lack of nuance, but that strikes me as off. This is a woman who has been scarred by life—she offhandedly notes that her parents were tossed from a helicopter, Scarface-style, when she was young—and thus has grown wary. Wary, but not weary. An energy burns deep inside her character, and we see it in fitful bursts: when she intimidates Reiner (Javier Bardem) by having sex with his car, or when she hollers at an unseen frenemy on the phone that midway through their drug-stealing caper is not the time to develop weak knees.

It is, perhaps, ironic that so many people have simultaneously dismissed The Counselor as misogynistic and heaped scorn on Diaz for her forceful turn. Uncomfortable with a woman who takes charge and grabs what she wants with both hands, these writers apparently think it's inappropriate to show a powerful woman acting out. Pity, that. I recall very few critics slamming Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh for acting in much the same fashion. Odd.

Malkina's chilling soullessness is the physical representation of The Counselor‘s worldview. Given the film's bleakness, it is unsurprising that audiences and critics alike have reacted poorly to the character. But that very reaction is a testament of Diaz's performance, a reminder that a great performance doesn't necessarily leave you in love with the character brought to life.