Over the past decade, Ridley Scott has taken some heat for directing films that are visually impressive but lack narrative weight. Here, he teams up with famed novelist Cormac McCarthy, the writer of “The Road,” “No Country For Old Men,” and “Blood Meridian” who makes his screenwriting debut with The Counselor. But old habits die hard: this is a stylish movie filled with sexy people, fast cars, and sharp suits, and though the film’s premise is strong, McCarthy and Scott get trapped under the weight of their own attempts to tell this story in the “coolest” possible way.
Michael Fassbender plays the title character (who’s never referred to by name), a Texas lawyer who, for reasons unknown to us, experiences a shortage of cash and – like so many flawed characters in film noir history – looks for a quick way to make it back, regardless of the moral complexities involved. Ignoring numerous warnings, he puts much of his remaining cash in for a drug deal with his buddy Reiner, a flamboyantly-dressed and mega-rich entrepreneur played by Javier Bardem. There’s 20 million to be made if all goes well, but since this is a Cormac McCarthy story, things don’t quite go according to plan.
Fassbender proves yet again that his recent rise to the A-list is no fluke: he sports a Southern accent that isn’t laughable (a tougher task than one might imagine, even for the best actors in the business) and gels convincingly with McCarthy’s dialogue. He handles blustery swagger and panicked intensity with equal aplomb, but it says something about the movie that he plays the lead and is actually the least memorable character in it. Bardem, with his spiky hair and larger-than-life persona, is great as king of the underworld, while the cowboy-hat-wearing Brad Pitt is solid in a small role as a middle man who warns the counselor against getting involved in the drug trade.
Penelope Cruz plays Fassbender’s fiancee, but unfortunately that’s about as much as we ever learn about her character. She becomes the damsel in distress when things start to go south, but she’s given the least to do (by far) when it comes to the main actors. Cameron Diaz plays Bardem’s significant other, a cheetah-obsessed huntress who proves more deadly than originally meets the eye. She’s always scheming and is often one step ahead of the audience, so we spend much of the movie trying to figure out her plan. The problem is that Diaz is terrible in the film. She’s the only person who doesn’t convincingly deliver McCarthy’s dialogue, and it’s actively distracting how much she sounds like she’s reading lines instead of speaking naturally. (Pre-production rumors pegged Angelina Jolie to play this part initially, but she fell out due to scheduling conflicts. It’s a shame, because Jolie would have been perfect for the role.)
Scott actually doesn’t deserve as much of the blame for this movie’s ultimate mediocrity as McCarthy, since the director is simply translating the writer’s screenplay in the best way he knows how. The Counselor is mostly a beautiful thing to behold, with its warm hues, desert landscapes, and cheetah imagery practically exploding from every frame. Most of the film’s shortcomings stem from the script, which McCarthy packs full of on-the-nose dialogue about death and the consequences of choices we make (the word “cautionary” is spoken at least five times. We get it. It’s a cautionary tale). He beats us over the head with the movie’s themes in extended sequences that feature characters waxing philosophical, but one can only take so many of these speeches before they become obnoxious.
The director does a great job at building tension before unleashing bursts of violence, and he knows how to balance the film’s life-and-death stakes with a touch of humor when needed; Bardem’s story about Cameron Diaz’s character getting…intimate…with his Ferrari is a bizarre comedic highlight. I’ll give McCarthy credit for making the violence memorable, though – you’ll see things here that you’ve never seen before, including methods of murder you won’t soon forget. But the moments that come off as McCarthy trying to write something “badass” don’t make up for the rest of the narrative, which suffers from an unsatisfying ending that just seems to end because the filmmakers decided it was a good time to stop.
Yes, The Counselor can be read as a meditation on inevitability of death and how anyone can make one mistake that dramatically hastens death’s arrival. But mostly, it’s just a passable film from a bunch of talented people that doesn’t quite live up to the idea of their collaboration. And when the people involved are this talented and this is their final product, it’s tough to consider the movie anything other than a disappointment. Until next time…
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