Cast: Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Rosie Perez, Edgar Ramirez, Ruben Blades, Goran Visnjic, Dean Norris, John Leguizamo, and Brad Pitt
Written By: Cormac McCarthy
Directed By: Ridley Scott
The Counselor has all the necessary staples of a dark crime thriller set in the grim world of the Mexican drug trade. There’s violence, greed, bad people doing bad things to other bad people, etc… but what’s the point of it all? This is author Cormac McCarthy’s (No Country for Old Men, The Road) first screenplay and it share’s similarities with his other work, but unfortunately one of those similarities isn’t necessarily quality. Having said that, when a film is this unconventional and goes out of its way to be the opposite of a crowd-pleaser, it’s hard to completely dismiss it.
Michael Fassbender plays the title role of Counselor (the only name he’s ever referred to by) who is engaged to be married to the beautiful Laura (Penelope Cruz). Due to financial constraints that are never fully explained, he gets involved in a drug trafficking operation to make some extra loot. His role in the operation is also never fully explained and I suppose it doesn’t necessarily matter, but the exclusion of this plot point is one of many examples of how McCarthy disregards details that are germane to the storyline. Sure, we can still follow along without knowing exactly what part the Counselor plays in the scheme, but why is this script on a “need to know” basis?
Also involved in this drug smuggling undertaking are middleman Westray (Brad Pitt) and shady night club owner Reiner (Javier Bardem). Reiner’s girlfriend is the villainous seductress Malkina (Cameron Diaz) who will end up playing a bigger role in all this than just that of “the girlfriend”. The cast is good, even while struggling to convincingly sell such baroque dialogue, but there’s nothing so outstanding about any single performance. Bardem may be reuniting with his No Country for Old Men scribe, but Reiner is no Anton Chigurh.
One of the fundamental problems with the movie is that Cormac McCarthy is not a screenwriter, he’s a novelist, but apparently he isn’t aware that there’s a major difference in formatting the content of each medium. Although The Counselor isn’t based on a novel, the film is so unstructured and enigmatic that it comes off as if Ridley Scott used a book for the shooting script as opposed to a properly adapted screenplay. One might confuse this neglect to conform to cinematic norms for artistic innovation, but if the film was meant to be avant-garde, it’s more like an ambitious mess.
The first two-thirds of the film consists mostly of opaque dialogue that is supposed to be philosophical and metaphorical, but is often inscrutable instead. McCarthy isn’t interested in having any of his characters sound or act like real people, but instead wishes to convey his intellectual ideologies through them. As a result of this and the fact that McCarthy is less concerned with telling a coherent story than he is waxing poetic, the film often meanders from scene to scene of disconnected speeches. For instance, when $20 million is stolen from the head of the Mexican drug cartel, what does he do? But of course, he gives a lengthy discourse on how the choices we make effect the ones we love and how there’s no redemption for our sins and blah blah. There’s no real flow to the film and even as the plot develops more in the third act, it becomes abundantly clear that not all the pieces of this convoluted puzzle are going to come together by the end.
Because Ridley Scott is such a talented director, one of the most frustrating aspects of the film is that there’s some terrifically executed sequences throughout, but they’re surrounded by a muddled plot. These are beautifully shot scenes that include shootouts, inventive and suspenseful deaths and the occasional thought-provoking diatribe (I stress occasional). Then there’s what’s perhaps the weirdest part of an already weird movie, Cameron Diaz’s lascivious activity with a car windshield. A bootleg video of this moment, which you just have to see for yourself, is bound to be posted on YouTube following the film’s opening weekend.
The Counselor is a confusing, unpleasant, bleak and deeply cynical film but I’ll be damned if it didn’t hold my attention throughout. With the creative pedigree involved, what you’d expect is a mainstream crime thriller but what you get is an artsy and talky riff on film noir. This is a film that will polarize general audiences who go in looking for commercial entertainment from an A-list director and featuring A-list actors. While surely a disappointing misfire, it’s also oddly engaging if only for how ballsy and bizarre it all is. The Counselor is a tough film to critique… Is it good? Not quite. Did I enjoy it? Not exactly. Am I sorry I saw it? Not at all.