Directed by: Ridley Scott. I was really on the fence about this one, both because it did not come highly recommended by friends I trust, and because my own experiences with Ridley have been inconsistent at best. He’s got some genuinely legit stuff to his name—obviously—but goddamn that Robin Hood movie was a complete turd. So when I heard that this movie, despite the collaboration with Cormac McCarthy and the appearance of such sure-fire actors as Penelope, Javier and Fassybendy, was actually a dud, I wasn’t completely surprised. But, I was still curious to check it out because of course I was curious to check it out. After all, it’s a Fassbender flick! I’m not going to not see it. And hell, Cormac McCarthy doing an original film script? His adaptation of his theatrical script The Sunset Limited was pretty goddamn great—how could this go wrong?
So I watched it, and I could see how people could shrug it off as a pretty flat dud of a film. But there was something to it that drew me in for a second viewing, and the second time around, with the basic understanding of the plot out of the way, I was watching for the big picture, for the fancy thematic shit. Doing that gave me a bit more appreciation for this thing, but even so, this is a tremendously flawed movie. The “big stuff” only occurred to me once we saw Michael Fassbender go see the diamond man, played by Bruno Ganz. This was genuinely pretty interesting—the setup of the criminal side of things, of a high-stakes Mexican Cartel gangster movie/cautionary tale about first-world greed is interrupted by this one fairly drawn out scene showing a conversation about diamonds. And they’re not talking about the money side of it, the criminal, dodgy side of it, “moving stones” or anything like that, but they’re having a very sober, poetic, philosophical (if not entirely subtle) discussion about the flaws that make the object rather than mar the object. Get it? The diamond is the Counselor, and the Counselor is a flawed human being, and his personal weaknesses, combined with the very harsh setting the he’s gotten himself into, combine to form the negative consequences that precipitate in this film, largely under the influence of Cameron Diaz’s character (who you’ll notice, ends the film wearing diamonds). The idea is that the Counselor’s flaws—his greed—make him weak in this environment, because he’s not savvy enough, he’s not evil enough. Cameron Diaz, on the other hand, is perfectly in command of her greed, and this is what makes her the winner in this scenario.
So all of that is pretty cool I guess. And like Sir Ridley’s other sleek-looking, attractive-seeming, but ultimately kind of empty and shoulder-shrugging attempt at a sexy, high-stakes crime thriller, American Gangster, this one has plenty of the trappings of a really enjoyable, compulsively re-watchable movie. But trappings is all this movie has: sleek cinematography, a crisp, detached sense of no-nonsense cool, some snappy dialogue coming from some very attractive A-list stars—I mean, it’s Brad Pitt, Javier, Fassbender, and Cruz, with cameos from Goran Visnjic, Bruno Ganz, Rosie Perez, John Leguizamo, Dean Norris (Hank from Breaking Bad), Natalie Dormer (Marjory Tyrrell from Game of Boners), and my man Edgar Ramirez in a criminally small and bewilderingly superfluous role as a Catholic priest. And, in case you forgot, it’s got a screenplay by fucking Cormac McCarthy, one of the best living writers of modern English literature, and probably the only genuine literary celebrity (no, fucking J.K. Rowling doesn’t count) in the 21st century anglosphere. You would think that his staggeringly adept command of the nimbly subtle potential of the English language, and his ability to construct the most nuanced, sideways, and utterly effective characterization of fictional humans since fill-in-the-blank, would make him tremendously over-qualified to draft a Hollywood screenplay for a crime thriller. This is like Stephen Hawking teaching your grandma how to use a pocket calculator.
But—turns out—this is not what this means at all. I won’t go into detail about why I have such great respect for Cormac McCarthy the author—just go read Blood Meridian already. But novels are different from screenplays. When you read Cormac’s dialogue in his books, it sounds really cool in your head, in the voice of some imaginary character, imbued with an impossible sense of stoic gravity. It worked for Tommy Lee Jones in No Country, so why doesn’t it work here? I do not know. But I do know that every character’s dialogue—and really, most of it is intricate, dense, sideways poetic soliloquies rather than actual dialogue—feels much too grandiose, way too top-heavy, for the scenario they’re in. And in the case of Cameron Diaz, it feels like the dialogue is actually way above her head. I mean, it actually feels like she has no fucking clue what she’s talking about. The rest of the actors might not totally get what the fuck McCarthy is driving at, but they act like they do. You know—acting. Unfortunately, Diaz is batting way out of her league here, and this is painfully evident with every second of screentime she gets. The one facial expression she strikes over and over in a way that she thinks is affecting a very subtle and effective rendition of the nuanced and inscrutable evil of this character, but which is actually just a 12-year-old’s funny impression of a particularly smug cat, kind of gives the whole game away. With all of this, I’m completely aware of the arguments that I’m sure Sir Ridley and Sir Cormac would make—that this film is operating in a sort of heightened reality, that the sideways Shakespearean dialogue is a complement to the sideways Shakespearean drama unfolding in this contemporary world of Mexican drug cartels, and that all of this is a really interesting and worthwhile artistic endeavor. I would say that it certainly would be, if not for basically Cameron Diaz alone fucking the whole thing up. To be fair, there are scenes where it feels like even Javier, who has a much better resume than Cameron (to put it lightly), no matter what he does, his whole character is just one of the weak links, maybe because he just looks like a big doofus through the whole movie. And that whole scene with Cameron Diaz “banging his car”? (Uhhhhhh…okay, Mister McCarthy, you’re the genius, we’ll put that scene in the movie…) With all due respect to Sir Cormac’s genuinely incredible bibliography (which I own a bit of myself—you’re welcome), it really feels like this movie was an example of a potentially good idea that didn’t quite come off on screen. And one that, seriously, was completely fucking derailed by Cameron Diaz. Note to the entire film industry: if you have an ambiguous and challenging role that turns out to be the center of gravity of the whole film, don’t give that role to Cameron Diaz. Duhhhhhhhhh!