A film review by Craig J. Koban October 31 , 2013

THE COUNSELOR jj
 

2013, R, 117 mins.

 

Michael Fassbender as The Counselor  /  Brad Pitt as Westray  /  Penélope Cruz as Malkina  /  Javier Bardem as Reiner  /  Cameron Diaz as Malkina  /  Rosie Perez as Ruth  /  Bruno Ganz as Diamond Dealer

Directed by Ridley Scott  /  Written by Cormac McCarthy

THE COUNSELOR – at least on paper – offers viewers up the implied promise of greatness, but nonetheless does not really have a roadmap to properly arrive at such an accolade.  Here’s a film directed by the typically stalwart veteran that is Ridley Scott, is written by one of the most prominent novelists of our time in Cormac McCarthy, and stars a relative who’s-who of Oscar nominated and winning talent.  Alas, an undeniable aura of what’s wrong with this film seems to taint it from the very beginning.  I went in with the highest of expectations, only to have them trumped by a surprisingly clumsy screenplay that’s not only tone deaf, but lacks a legitimate sense of suspense required for thrillers genre pictures likes this.  In the end, I found myself caring very little for anyone or anything in the film. 

THE COUNSELOR received plenty of pre-publicity notoriety based on McCarthy’s presence alone.  This is the same literary mind that has penned masterpieces like NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and THE ROAD, but his own screenplay for THE COUNSELOR is his first original one penned specifically for the silver screen.  His inclusion alone raises a film’s – any film’s, for that matter - potential, but the end results are a far cry away from being in the same high caliber echelon of his previous novels.  Somewhat ineptly – if not more than a bit confusingly – plotted and, at times, unnecessarily verbose with its dialogue, McCarthy’s script and the film in general inspires much listless shuffling in a theatre chair as well as far-too-frequent watch checking; not good signs at all for a film that’s supposed to tease, tantalize, and intrigue us. 

The title of the film refers to both the main character – a lawyer – and actually the name he’s referred to as throughout the entire film.  No…really!  “The Counselor” (Michael Fassbender, a magnificent screen presence, doing what can with the material provided) is an attorney that has fallen on truly hard times.  He’s desperate for his next big cash score, so he aspires to join the ranks of a large-scale drug deal involving Reiner (Javier Bardem, sporting yet another outlandish hairdo for a film) and Westray (a never more dour and sulky looking Brad Pitt).  The trio are attempting to plan a massive cartel delivery from Mexico to Chicago, but complications, as you would expect, ensue.  Meanwhile, the Counselor is courting the love of his life Laura (Penelope Cruz) to become his wife, and with the prospect of a hug payday coming, the possibilities of a happy life for them both seems likely.   

 

 

Serious setbacks begin to arise in the smuggling plan.  The drugs themselves – secretly housed inside shipment containers that also carry raw sewage containers – is hijacked on route by some vicious assailants, and to make matters worse the Counselor also manages to catch the unwanted attention of the cartel leadership that wants him dead as a result of some of his more underhanded dealings.  Realizing that both his and his future wife’s lives hang desperately in the balance, the lawyer frantically tries to pull himself together to atone to those in power for his business sins.  Regretfully for him, the drug kingpins are less than forgiving chaps, which leaves the Counselor stuck between a rock and very hard place. 

Of the film’s few positives I will say this: THE COUNSELOR is an unendingly dark, macabre, and emotionally bleak work.  It’s replete with morally dicey personas, none of which are particularly likeable.  McCarthy’s script also manages to investigate the nature and themes of bad moral choices rather well, as it effectively demonstrates the mental unravelling of its main character when bad choices leads to consequences, panic, and then mental breakdown.  Ridley Scott – one of the most supremely gifted visual filmmakers around – is also kind of surprisingly and refreshingly subdued in terms of his aesthetic choices in the film.  He paints the screen with modest stylistic choices that help to frame and accentuate the characters and performances.  Since this is a film that’s attempting to be a heavily character driven, it’s appropriate that Scott let’s his typically robust artistic impulses settle down so that they don’t become an obtrusive distraction. 

Yet, the problem with the film is that, deep down, I didn't develop, nor maintain, any semblance on interest in any of the characters here.  The film never invests in its characters nearly as much as it thinks it does, despite the fact that it’s wall-to-wall with heavy dialogue exchanges that sometimes go on…and on…and on…and frequently do little to lay out who these people are.  Sometimes, the conversations between characters become almost tediously off-putting as many of them go off on weird monologues that don’t really tend to propel the plot forward in any reasonable manner.  Normally, I have no problem with this approach (a writer like Quentin Tarantino, for instance, knows how to harness colorful exchanges between characters that don’t necessarily add to the plot, per se), but McCarthy’s words here are so dense, monotonous, and oftentimes lifeless that viewers will, no doubt, wonder what they really amount to…as I did. 

This is all not helped by the fact that the performances here range from pretty decent to incredulously over-the-top to the point of vile caricature.  Fassbender is arguably the most grounded of the actors in his approach here, and Pitt is nicely understated too.  Javier Bardem is barely in the film enough to make an impression, so he lets his flamboyant wardrobe choices do most of the talking.  Then there is Cameron Diaz, who plays Bardem’s girlfriend in the film, a character so broadly defined that you want to laugh at her (she sports a cheetah tattoo on her body…and actually has cheetahs as pets!).  She also is a grand ringmaster here, manipulating everyone with relative ease, even though the script never really fully explains how she’s capable of this.  She does occupy arguably the film’s most memorable – if not campy – sequence, where she boasts to Reiner that she wants to fornicate…with his Ferrari, which she…does.  It is, without question, one of the strangest sex scenes in movie history. 

Despite sensationalistic and sleazy moments like this, THE COUNSELOR never even manages to elevate itself to the level of cheekily enjoyable B-grade trash because, quite frankly, the character dynamics are just not all that enjoyable in the film.  This, in turn, leaves the film being largely unsatisfying and not very pleasing to sit through.  The end of the film ends with an abrupt stop for the sake of quickly ending the film, I think, seeing as perhaps Scott and McCarthy don’t seem to have an idea of how to adequately conclude the film.  I would hasten to label this film – as many critics have – as a bad one; it’s more of an ambitiously mediocre one with good core ingredients that are not properly mixed together.  That, and I never thought I’d be bored senseless by the cinematic pairing of Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy.  Not.  At.  All. 

  H O M E