The Counselor is a crushing disappointment. The law of movie logic* suggests there should have been something worth watching here but no. What should have been insightful is preachy; what should have been terrifying is laughable; and worst of all, what should have been gripping is plain dull. The film may already have its share of rabid defenders but in this writer’s mind, there’s no defending material that fails the most basic of cinematic tests – to be engaging.
Directed by Ridley Scott from a screenplay by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Cormac McCarthy, The Counselor stars Michael Fassbender as a smug El Paso attorney who, against the warnings of his seedy drug-dealing pals Reiner (Javier Bardem) and Westray (Brad Pitt), gets his hands dirty in a one-time drug deal involving the transportation of $20 million in cocaine. As to why he partakes in this deal (he definitely has the money) or who he’s conducting this deal with is unclear. Inevitably, everything that can go wrong goes wrong. Then bad things happen and people die. As the counselor, as he is known as by his friends, scrambles to set things right, he learns that he has inevitably put the life of his angelic fiancée Laura (Penelope Cruz) into peril. There’s also Malkina (Cameron Diaz), a one-note she-devil who serves two purposes in the picture: to wear hideous cheetah-spot outfits and to rub her crotch on the windshield of a Ferrari.
To be fair, that much buzzed-about and campy “gynecological” moment is just about the only enjoyable scene in a movie that’s otherwise devoid of entertainment value. While it’s easy to put most of the blame on Scott for the film’s failure – and there’s a case to be made for his soulless, style-over-substance direction – the film’s biggest problems begin and end with McCarthy’s pretentious, self-indulgent screenplay.
If you’re not familiar with McCarthy’s previous work, then you should know that he’s not a very optimistic fellow. Most of his novels, which include Blood Meridian, The Road, and No Country for Old Men (the latter two were adapted into successful films) are dark, violent and nihilistic affairs. Like those novels, The Counselor too is a bleak tale about greed, drugs, corruption and death on the America-Mexico border. And like No Country for Old Men, unarguably the most successful McCarthy adaptation to date, there are shocking sequences of violence and gore – one that involves a brutally efficient device that is even more effective than Anton Chigurgh’s cattle gun.
But where No Country for Old Men benefited from the Coen brothers’ genius for blending the author’s bleak worldview with twisted humor and a riveting narrative that made you root for its characters, The Counselor is a largely uncinematic affair in which plot and character are secondary to long, pretentious monologues where people wax philosophical about greed, mortality and the futility of hope. That may work well in a novel but it’s not necessarily the case for a two-hour film – especially when all those monologues boil down to one thing – “Greed leads to pain, violence and death,” and where holding the attention of the audience with engaging characters is key.
McCarthy’s actors do their best with the material but there isn’t enough in the script for them to breathe life into it. Fassbender, so mesmerizing in 12 Years a Slave, is shockingly bland as the titular character. I couldn’t care less about what happened to him mostly because I knew next to nothing about him, including his name. Pitt fares better as the world-weary, cowboy hat-wearing dealer who is aware that his best days are behind him. Its Bardem though who leaves the biggest impact as the flamboyant Reiner. With his porcupine hair, garish garb and superstitious personality, the McCarthy veteran is obviously having a good time. His reaction to and vivid description of the events that unfold during the aforementioned Ferrari scene are camp classic territory. I wish I could say the same for Diaz who is embarrassingly miscast in a poorly conceived and written role.
I would have liked to dub The Counselor a fascinating failure. But to be dubbed as one, there’d have to be something “fascinating” about it in the first place. No, this is a pretentious, self-indulgent and borderline misogynistic film that is neither entertaining nor thrilling. Perhaps some may find beauty in this trash masquerading as art but you won’t find it here.
*Movie logic: A great director, a great writer, a fantastic cast = top-notch pedigree. Usually that formula equates something worthwhile.