The Counselor
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Spoilers ahead, folks.

I need to see Gravity again before I can really go after my co-critic for his dismissal of a film that actually manages to dramatize the Christian notion of being “born again” without preaching (or even mentioning) Jesus. I mean, yeah, it’s not exactly subtle: Hey, look, George Clooney lays down his life so that Sandra Bullock can live. And right after she gets into the airlock, she sheds her suit and goes fetal. But why does everything have to be subtle? There’s a difference between manifest and pedantic.

It’s a fine visual: astronaut Bullock, delivered from the endless dark and cold of space (as fine an image of death as ever there was), frees herself of the airless, wrinkly bulk that limits her movements (as fine an image of Saint Paul’s “put off the old man, which is corrupt” as you could ask for), and curls her smooth and weightless self into the posture of one who is just beginning to live.

The journey back to new life (Earth) still stretches out before her, perilous and uncertain. There are a hundred ways that things can still go awry. But she has been delivered from certain death and has a chance to work out her salvation in fear and trembling. If the great virtue of film is its power to convey meaning through images, well... But as I say, I need to see this one again before we really lock horns on it.

But you know what film I did see again? The Counselor. If anything, I liked it better the second time. Odd bits whose point I couldn’t work out the first time became clear. Why does the Counselor (Michael Fassbender) encounter and wander through a protest/memorial upon leaving the Mexican café at night? Because the protesters, who have lost innocent loved ones to drug violence, are doing the only thing they can: standing together and bearing witness to injustice. But although Fassbender has lost an innocent loved one, he cannot stand with them because he has shared in the injustice. It’s a lovely illustration of the way sin isolates a person from the human community.

My experience with Cormac McCarthy as a writer is limited to the movies: No Country for Old Men (for which he wrote the source novel) and The Counselor (for which he wrote the screenplay). I don’t know if he believes in God and redemption, but I think he believes in sin and damnation — if that makes sense. And he seems to subscribe to a vision of the universe in which there ought to be a God, whether or not there actually is. I think it shows in his treatment of religion.

Consider middleman Brad Pitt’s statement that he could leave the drug business anytime he wants. “I could go to a monastery: scrub the stairs, wash the toilets,” he assures us. Why doesn’t he? “Women.” (His weakness. Naturally, it proves his undoing.) Interesting that he chooses a monastery as his place away from the criminal life, instead of, say, a beach on some tropical island with a drink in his hand. Also interesting that he mentions cleaning toilets — this is after he’s told Fassbender, “I’ve seen it all. It’s all shit.” (A major theme in the film.) If it’s all shit, why would you even consider cleaning toilets in a monastery? Because, just maybe, there’s something there that isn’t shit. Something that transcends all the shit we make and do and eventually become.

Or consider Fassbender’s constant appeal to Jesus when he realizes that everything has gone horribly wrong. “Jesus,” he says to Pitt. “Jesus.” Of course, in the context of the film, he’s just cursing. But it also reads as a prayer. Because no one else can save him at that point.

Most interesting of all: Cameron Diaz’s confessional scene. She wants to mess with the priest, pour the poison of her sexual debauchery in his ear without asking for or receiving forgiveness — because she thinks it would be fun and maybe a little bit hot. But the priest will have nothing to do with her. “There would be no point,” he says flatly. When she persists, cooing, “You just have to listen,” he stands up and leaves the confessional. This Catholic priest is the only person she interacts with who escapes unscathed. (Even her accountant at the end hears more than he wants to hear.) Only the man who sees beyond the shit of this world can hope to escape its corrupting power.

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Comments

Scott Marks Dec. 5, 2013 @ 5:02 a.m.

The great sin of "Gravity" is its inability to tell a story without relying on CGI as a crutch. And I'm not sure about the use of the words "born again." Long before Chuck Colson, Stephen Baldwin, Gary Busey, and other guilt-ridden celebrity types cashed in on the saying for PR purposes the term simply meant re-awakening. If we are to follow your line of thinking, every time Wile E. Coyote stands up and brushes an Acme safe off his head he is born again.

Believe me, after spending time with your family, no one knows the meaning of the words born again better than I. I just can't see how it has any bearing on George and Sandy's space opera.

The question remains, if there is a God, why is S/He allowing such a pestilent parade of misery to be unleashed at Christmastime?

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Matthew Lickona Dec. 5, 2013 @ 11:03 a.m.

I don't think the term simply meant "re-awakening" when Jesus Christ said it to Nicodemus, Scott. Wile E. Coyote undergoes no significant change after each safedropping. Bullock goes from death-in-life - a meaningless passage of days spent in alienation and mourning - to life in the midst of deadly circumstances. Let's watch it again and argue about it on tape. As for CGI, you're a grump. Here you have a film that actual sets out to tell a story and convey meaning primarily through images as opposed to dialogue, and you ding it for not using a model space station? I think CGI is good when it helps the story, bad when it substitutes for story. I thought his case was very much the former.

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Dorian Hargrove Dec. 5, 2013 @ 12:03 p.m.

It seems like a bit of a reach to me, this whole line of thinking. Any movie/piece of music or art is open to interpretation. As far as Gravity is concerned, a Christian can see parallels with Jesus while an agnostic/non-believer can see it as two people that happen to die while in space.-dH

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Matthew Lickona Dec. 5, 2013 @ 1:07 p.m.

Yes indeed, Dorian. I'm curious, though: would you pony up $12 to see a movie with a plot summary of "Two people happen to die while in space"? Me, I prefer a little more meaningful meat on the narrative bone.

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Dorian Hargrove Dec. 5, 2013 @ 1:34 p.m.

Well, if the movie also includes great cinematography, dialogue, character development, et cetera, then yes I would pay the $12. To me, if the writer/director comes out and explains this alternate narrative then we can critique him/her on the merits of that. As Scott mentioned, re-awakenings of some sort, occur in most movies. That re-awakening can mean salvation but it could mean death, companionship, or a list of other outcomes. Of course, this is just my opinion.-dH

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Matthew Lickona Dec. 5, 2013 @ 1:51 p.m.

Sure it can. As I said, I need to see it again, but my strong first impression in this particular case was of spiritual rebirth/regained notion of meaning, manifested through classically Christian motifs. And do we really need to have the director come out and spell things out in order to offer interpretations? That'd take the fun out of it. I've always loved that different people see High Noon as either pro- or anti-American.

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Dorian Hargrove Dec. 5, 2013 @ 2:37 p.m.

You make some good points and I appreciate the dialogue. As you can probably tell I play devil's advocate (ha) and also had a horrific time trying to get through Literary Criticism in college. I guess I will actually need to watch the film now. (just kidding)!!!-dH

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dwbat Dec. 5, 2013 @ 4:26 p.m.

I haven't seen "Gravity" but the wonderful "2001: A Space Odyssey" has been obviously interpreted as an evolutionary "born again" message (but definitely not in any Christian sense). I don't know how it comes across today (especially on a small screen at home) but it was a mind-blowing experience in 1968 when I saw it (in 70mm widescreen format).

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Matthew Lickona Dec. 6, 2013 @ 7:29 a.m.

Right you are. I think it's significant that 2001 ends with a fetus in space and Gravity ends with a person on the ground. One is a progression to somewhere new, the other is a renewed return to home.

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dwbat Dec. 6, 2013 @ 10:08 a.m.

Both movies also have technological breakdowns. In 2001, the "one-eyed monster" supercomputer HAL malfunctions and turns rogue. And then we see the human's struggle to survive--to fight another day.

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shirleyberan Dec. 5, 2013 @ 2:26 p.m.

Are we back down to earth as in psychological thriller?

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shirleyberan Dec. 6, 2013 @ 11:42 a.m.

Sorry Matt - I was thinking you were trying too hard for definition and I like it when it's left to my own interpretation - didn't see the movie - what about life goes on and on? And I think born again has been stolen by the religious in recovery, whatever. I am working on my own psychological script.

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job April 10, 2014 @ 2 p.m.

Sorry, I'm late to the party.

What I found interesting was the parallels with this.

And what's more, while Christian overtones may be hard to argue for a dimwit like me, I can't imagine Cecile Richards sat through this scene without at least ONE squirm...

JOB

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