Academy Award winning director Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Gladiator). Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Cormac McCarthy (The Road, No Country For Old Men). Michael Fassbender. Brad Pitt. Javier Bardem. Penelope Cruz. Cameron Diaz. What happened here? A squandered opportunity. With such a pedigree preceding the collaboration and such magnificent ingredients, it is hard not to walk into The Counselor with some level of anticipation and expectation. But few would have foreseen such a tedious and inanimate result.
I enjoy films that try something different and pose a challenge for the audience, but The Counselor is tough work, encumbered by a thin, confusing plot and inconsequential and overwritten monologues and anecdotes, while throwing at an audience blatant misogyny, windshield sex, high speed decapitations and a lot of other nasty business. I wasn't a fan, though I thought there were some fascinating characters and terrific patches of dialogue.
The story is set on the Tex/Mex border (a staple in McCarthy's novels) and we are immediately introduced to the titular protagonist (Fassbender), referred to as ‘The Counselor’ by everyone, including his beautiful girlfriend Laura (Cruz). This handsome smooth talker has built up a position of power and as he needs to continue to fund his lavish lifestyle – buying his fiancé a diamond ring with as few carrots as possible is in the works - he decides to further capitalize on it. The Counselor joins the party of Reiner (Bardem), an eccentrically attired (and haired) client who puts him in touch with a middleman named Westray (Pitt) who warns him not to get involved with the Mexican cartel, and the considered smuggling operation. We are also introduced to Reiner’s girlfriend Malkina (Diaz), a tattooed ice queen with pet cheetahs and her own agenda. When the deal goes bad - the loot gets stolen, and The Counselor, having bailed out a biker as a personal favor to an incarcerated client, is consequently tied to it all. He finds himself entangled and out of his depth in this unforgiving and merciless underworld.
While this is essentially the plot, The Counselor is mostly comprised of disconnected single-scene vignettes and flirts with incomprehensibility. There is a semblance of a narrative, but we feel like we have been thrust into the lives of these characters – and what we don’t know shouldn’t matter, but evidently does – and have little investment in the decisions they make. While there are chapters missing at the beginning – the film starts under the bed sheets with a character who remains elusively unnamed - scenes that contribute to the overall sense of the plot have been replaced by lengthy conversations (wrapped in monologue) and that don’t offer a lot of answers.
They ultimately contribute to the overarching narrative, but mostly have the characters musing at length about life, death, sex and business. Reiner tells a story about a guillotine noose that cartels are using to dispose of their rivals – and of course that comes into the equation – while Reiner also recounts a sensational, if disturbing, experience he had with Malkina, which involves an amusing comparison to a catfish. It is somewhat concerning that The Counselor’s claim to fame has become this scene. In fact, there is a lot of sex discussed here; Bardem talks about sex with Fassbender, Diaz talks about sex with Cruz, and a priest even walks out of confession, too disturbed by Diaz’ frankness about her sexual exploits. This all soon begins to weigh on a viewer’s patience. I gave the film’s odd rhythms and disregard for narrative clarity many chances.
What I found so disappointing about this how it lacked cinematic qualities. When I read McCarthy’s novels I find his writing so vivid that it is easy to visualize everything he describes. His writing is cinematic. Here, this world didn’t feel alive, despite some impressive photography, haunting score progressions, and a genuine off-screen foreboding. It wasn’t even explained in the myriad of brain-numbing stories. His debut screenplay has far too much dead weight, and while snippets of conversation linger in the mind – Westray’s declaration that The Counselor is mistaken if he believes he has friends that will come to his aid for example – I don’t look back at this film fondly. There is a scene towards the end, however – accompanied by a brilliant score – that created more tension than the rest of the film combined. It comes far too late.
The performances are strong. I can only imagine what this would have been like if such talented actors weren’t on board. Fassbender continues to prove he is one of finest actors working, Pitt oozes coolness as always and Bardem seemed to enjoy himself in his wild hair and wardrobe. Though Diaz’ turn here was as left field as anything she has ever done, I still feel like she was miscast. Cruz was underutilized, and folks like Bruno Ganz and Edgar Ramirez turn up for single scenes. You have to wonder what they all saw in a script this unpolished.
McCarthy’s stories share the theme of primitive desperation, blur the boundaries between good and evil, and often feature generally decent people innocently caught up in shady business or driven to do bad things. In The Counselor McCarthy tackles the repercussions of greed, the fallout of doing dirty business with powerful, ruthless individuals in an unconventional way that will alienate a lot of viewers. I have a hard time getting enthusiastic about this film on reflection. It wasn't a satisfying experience.