'The Counselor,' SMC students talk Drug War

Ridley Scott, director of "Gladiator" and "Blade Runner," returned to the big screen with "The Counselor," a violent but bland take on the drug trade in the U.S.-Mexico border.

Bland, but still relevant, it touches on the theme of the Drug War, which is still costing millions of dollars and thousands of lives while enriching devious figures.

Set in the underworld that connects El Paso, Texas with Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, "The Counselor" is a character study of the kind of individuals who are attracted by the lucrative but savage world of narcotics trafficking.

The screenplay was written by Cormac McCarthy, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of acclaimed novels such as "Blood Meridian" and "The Road."

The main character is a Texas lawyer known only as the counselor, played by Michael Fassbender. The counselor wishes to marry his girlfriend Laura, played by Penelope Cruz, and decides to make a one-time deal with the local drug cartel operating across the border in Ciudad Juarez. His main contacts are two drug runners named Reiner, a wacky eccentric played by Javier Bardem, and Brad Pitt as Westray, a cowboy who is in the game for the women. Hovering over them is Reiner's cold girlfriend Malkina, played by Cameron Diaz.

"The Counselor" comes short due to a problem of technique and approach. The screenplay by McCarthy is a classic case of a renowned author trying his hand at screenwriting, and while the prose is elegant, at times it can also be intrusive.

When the film should move with tension, it lingers while corrupt lawyers and gangsters talk endlessly with exaggerated dialogue that does not even fit the glossy, flashy magazine-like look Scott is applying. Some key moments of the story are not even shown, which contributes to the gaps in the storyline that may leave some confused and aloof.

However, "The Counselor" is relevant as it suggests that the issue of the Drug War and narcotics will remain prevalent. It captures the harsh reality of the capitalist ethos driving the ongoing drug trade.

The United Nations estimates that the global drug trade is worth $320 billion, and according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the U.S. spends about $20 billion a year to fight drugs. In Mexico alone, the militarized war on drugs, initiated in 2006 by then-President Felipe Calderon, has killed over 50,000.

The world of "The Counselor" recognizes this mad mixture of business and brutality.

In a scene of the movie, the counselor mentions to Westray that, "once drugs are legalized, all this is over, right?" A fitting query within a world where business booms because it is illegal.

So what do students at Santa Monica College think about this?

"It depends," says SMC film student Chris Rojas. "There are parts of the Americas where people don't smoke it, they chew, like coca leaf in Bolivia. It's more medical, it's not the LA life of 'let's get high.' Unprocessed materials should be OK."

Rojas says he feels that cocaine is different than marijuana and more dangerous.

"Some ravers use it because when they take meth it numbs their mouth; then they use cocaine to get the feeling back," he says.

As for the Drug War, Rojas thinks it is endless.

"They recently killed one of the top narcos in Mexico, the leader of Los Zetas, but after they killed that main person, there are subgroups that are forming," he says. "It's not going to end, new groups will emerge."

"The drugs are already selling," Rojas says. "Might as well legalize them and control them."

SMC student Andrew Koo believes that the U.S. government needs to find "different ways and methods to allocate their resources properly" since "it's important to fight drugs."

Another student, Camila Soto, says drug legalization is a matter of personal responsibility.

"You're hurting yourself," she says. "As long as you're not hurting others, why keep it illegal?"

In the film, the only police officers turn out to be drug runners in disguise. The absence of law enforcement is a testament to the situation as it stands; the drugs keep flowing, villainous men become wealthy, and the involved parties are still fueled by the product.

With a strong sense of direction and a more clear, defined plot, "The Counselor" could have been powerful material on this subject. Its aims are worthy, but the attempt is not.

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