Ridley Scott's recent film "The Counselor" certainly looked on the surface like something that would need no help in becoming a hit, with Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Brad Pitt, Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem starring in a high-gloss tale of a drug deal gone wrong directed by Scott from a screenplay by "No Country For Old Men" author Cormac McCarthy.
But then the film turned out to be too much its own thing. Rather than a prestige commercial film, it was a moody, melancholy saga prone to philosophical asides. Even Scott has recently referred to "The Counselor," with its unforgiving, hardened chill, as "an art movie."
The film has just been released to home video, on disc and digital platforms, in the theatrical version and an unrated extended cut that is some 20 minutes longer than what was released to theaters last fall.
The extended cut reshuffles scene order, lengthens some scenes with additional dialogue and adds a few scenes altogether. The differences are subtle but have an impact: The film's pacing is less jagged and its flow more organic. Even with its extended exchanges of dialogue, the longer version somehow plays brisker.
As in the theatrical edition, Fassbender plays a morally suspect lawyer who invests in a drug deal that immediately turns disastrous, only more so. Bardem's flaked-out confusion deepens into something soulful. The way Pitt laughs defensively at the absurdity of what's happening becomes more wise. Diaz's swaggering villainess, her performance reportedly based in part on the pop singer Rihanna, seems even more dangerous and alluring.
Scott has been through all this before, of course, as his “Blade Runner” has been released multiple times in numerous versions, with a long-standing debate among fans as to which is definitive and/or best. His 2005 film “Kingdom of Heaven” was similarly revived in a longer cut that was preferred by many. (And it may speak to the difficulties of contemporary Hollywood that the extended cut of “The Counselor” is still shorter than the theatrical cut of “Kingdom of Heaven.”)
“The long version is being played because it’s always interesting to see the long version,” said Scott in the deeply informative commentary track that plays with the extended version of “The Counselor” alongside a series of making-of featurettes. Later Scott added, “that’s why it’s worth seeing the long version, you get the whole nine yards.”
“The Counselor” deeply divided critics. Variety’s Scott Foundas called it “one of the best films” of Ridley Scott’s long career; Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir bluntly declared it “the worst ever made by people this talented.”
Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan called it “an extremely unpleasant piece of business… terminally bleak” as a negative dismissal. Grantland’s Wesley Morris called the film “filthy, nasty, sexy, absurd, appalling, and exhilarating.” In the New York Times, Manohla Dargis celebrated Scott for his “terrifying, implacable new movie… with a primitive, predatory vision.”
The film failed to connect with audiences, receiving an exit-poll Cinemascore of D and an opening weekend box-office of less than $8 million. Made for under $30 million, the film brought in less than $20 million at the U.S. box office but has nevertheless gone on to a worldwide tally of more than $70 million.
In the commentary, Scott noted that he was glad to hear “high-end journalists” responded to the film, as “it’s nice after all that effort to think somebody likes it.” As opposed to the film becoming a cult favorite years later, Scott said he would rather “somebody to like it now.”
Scott likewise referred to the film as “not my usual thing… and not being my usual thing is what I try to do every time,” while comparing the film specifically to his own films “Thelma & Louise,” “Matchstick Men” and “A Good Year” for standing apart from the high-end action films that are his more typical forte.
The era of multiple screens means that viewers can watch the theatrical and extended cuts side-by-side to compare differences, with the extra adventurous also able to read along with McCarthy’s published screenplay, which features some lines of dialogue that appear in neither edition of the film itself.
For those who haven’t seen the film, starting with the extended cut may be the way to go. It feels more complete and fully itself, rather than trying to split the difference between the eccentric storytelling and downbeat themes of Scott and McCarthy with a more conventionally styled movie. For those who weren’t ever inclined to like "The Counselor," the shortened theatrical cut was perhaps always still doomed to disappoint.
During the moment in the extended cut when the decapitated head of Brad Pitt drops ignominiously onto a London street, then is placed gently on his body by an emergency worker, even Scott in his commentary noted, “I think I’m glad I took that out.”
Follow Mark Olsen on Twitter: @IndieFocusCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times