2013 - 117 minutes
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Written by: Cormac McCarthy
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Brad Pitt, Penélope Cruz, Rosie Perez
“The Counselor” fancies itself a thinking person’s thriller, maintaining curiosity by forcing you to piece together a timeline and fill in some narrative gaps, but if you think too deeply it all quickly falls apart. And really, there’s not all that much there to unravel anyway. Boasting a cast of heavy hitters – in name and skill level, an acclaimed director, and a beloved Pulitzer-prize winning novelist penning the script, the film has the appearance of a cinematic force, but again, that’s all show masking a largely vacant purpose. It looks and quacks like a duck, but after putting everything together we have to consider that perhaps all of this talent is just swimming aimlessly in circles. (More animal idioms to come.)
A lawyer named only as Counselor (Michael Fassbender) gets himself involved in a huge drug deal with Reiner (Javier Barden), a client with cartel connections, and Westray (Brad Pitt), a mysterious middle man. He hopes to net $20 million to secure a future with new wife Laura (Penélope Cruz), but inevitably forces beyond his control throw a wrench in the plans. The cocaine shipment is hijacked and Counselor must navigate the shark-infested waters of the drug trade and deal with the consequences heading his way.
Cormac McCarthy, who’s “No Country for Old Men” was adapted by the Coen brothers into a remarkable film, writes his first produced original screenplay in a way that forces novelistic world building into rambling dialogue that calls way too much attention to itself. Where “No Country” feels grand and bookish due to its scope and stakes, “The Counselor” is literary only in that it feels overwritten. Nobody talks like these characters talk and while the language is beautifully constructed in spots, the fact that it’s constructed at all is the issue.
Faring worst at recitation of the prose is Cameron Diaz as Reiner’s sultry and scary girlfriend Malkina, the haughtiness oozing from her overly made up visage. She loves watching the couple’s two pet cheetahs stalk and kill prey, and it’s not very subtle that she has spots tattooed down half her back. She’s a predator intent on feeding her insatiable appetite for money and control and it’s not surprising that she may be pulling strings behind the scenes. They say a leopard can’t change its spots and apparently Malkina can’t either, even in a horribly misguided scene in a confessional booth when she probes the tolerance of the priest.
That’s not to mention the story Reiner tells Counselor in which Malkina makes physical love to his prized sports car. At the end of the yarn, Reiner tells Counselor to forget the anecdote, something I wish the filmmakers would’ve done.
In typical book fashion, every plot device McCarthy mentions through his character cyphers is eventually paid off and director Ridley Scott shoots it all with a reserved (yet competent and colorful) glee, refusing to provide pacing that is interesting or sensible. Westray asks Counselor if he’s ever seen a snuff film and then describes in detail how cartels shoot brutal torture scenes. Bet that comes up later. Reiner laboriously tells Counselor the workings of a cruel assassination device that uses wire and a built-in motor to strangle a victim until their carotid arteries are severed. Bet that comes up later.
This on-the-nose foreshadowing makes a strange mix with the film’s purposeful vagueness. Despite some interesting bones, “The Counselor” circles its plot without hitting on anything that really connects. It’s as though everyone knows the grandiosity and pretension is all misdirection that doesn’t lead to thoughtful dramatic payoffs, only attempts to disguise an empty film with no point.
© 2013 by Blake Crane