The Counselor (2013) / Thriller-Drama

MPAA Rated: R for graphic violence, some grisly images, strong sexual content, and language
Running Time: 117 min.

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz, Brad Pitt, Rosie Perez
Small role: Bruno Ganz, Ruben Blades, Goran Visnjic, Natalie Dormer, John Leguizamo
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenplay: Cormac McCarthy

Review published October 26, 2013

Acclaimed writer Cormac McCarthy gets his first feature-film screenplay credit in The Counselor, a philosophically intriguing but ultimately too-divergent film that has just about everything going for it production-wise, except for a story told well.  His usual pessimism oozes throughout this Faustian tale, especially in the corrupting power of a society where evil is everywhere, and yet, its bleakness isn't just used as a device, it becomes the main thrust. 

The titular counselor is played (in a not-terribly-convincing American accent) by Michael Fassbender (Prometheus, Haywire), a slick and corruptible lawyer from Texas who, due to his financial situation, ends up involving himself in trying to open up a club with a shady businessman named Reiner (Bardem, Skyfall). Reiner is currently negotiating a coke deal with an intermediary named Westray (Pitt, Benjamin Button), who regularly pushes product supplied by a dangerous Mexican drug cartel.  The naive counselor gets right into the thick of the deal, and finds himself in way over his head when the deal begins to turn sour, eventually becoming the scapegoat, leaving him to try to do the only thing he knows how to do -- to negotiate a deal with those trying to kill him.  Except that, when it comes to the unscrupulous, murderous drug cartel, any attempt to negotiate draws him closer to the raging fire trying to envelop him.

Though one of the finest directors of the era, Ridley Scott (Robin Hood, Body of Lies), dabbling here in subject matter that would definitely have attracted his sibling director (not surprisingly, the film is dedicated to Tony Scott, who died while Ridley was shooting it), is a bit stymied in trying to find the proper hook by which to make McCarthy's ponderous, foreshadow-heavy script cinematically compelling.  Scott concentrates much of his visual effort in the lavish lifestyles of those who've made a killing (sometimes literally) in the drug trade, with their impeccably dressed women, their fancy cars, and their sprawling haciendas.  Perhaps in the hands of the Texas-noir loving Coen Brothers, who adapted McCarthy previously in their award-winning, No Country for Old Men (also featuring Bardem), we'd get more of a concentration on the struggle between the desirousness of good and corruptibility of evil, the striving of faith and the fickle finger of fate, rather than just the exotic, James Bond-esque showcase of fast cars, motorcycles and cheetahs (the 'need for speed' among crooks is one of several curious motifs).

The plot is a bit murky, but intentionally so, as the counselor's various dealings soon make a connection, and he finds himself caught in a deadly predicament of his own making, though unintentionally so.  As with No Country's use of a cattle gun as a main weapon, McCarthy introduces another unique assassination device called a 'bolito', which is a wire contraption put around the neck of the victim that slowly continuous to tighten, and there is nothing the victim, nor anyone else, can do to stop it from its path of deadly intent.  That device is the metaphor for the counselor's path, as he can soon feel he has stepped into something he shouldn't have, and now the deliberate strangle of certain death is getting tighter and tighter around him.

The Counselor is a gorgeously shot film, featuring cinematography from Dariusz Wolski (On Stranger Tides, Alice in Wonderland), though the sleek and beautiful look is just coating encrusting an oil-and-water mix of Scott's glossy, superficial style on top of McCarthy's more complex, grit-filled characters underneath.  Scott wants to stick with a plotline that is barely even there, while McCarthy likes to explore his morally ambiguous characters with a depth that most directors would find too ponderous and verbose to wrap a motion picture around, and certainly Scott exhibits little patience in the more talk-heavy moments that emerge, hastily jumping to the comfort of more fluid endeavors and exhilarating shots of the scenic desert landscape. 

The Coens might have found jet-black humor underneath all of the menace, while Scott, ever the serious filmmaker, plays it all with the straightest of poker faces.   Cameron Diaz's (What to Expect..., Bad Teacher) character, Malkina, seems to be written with a mix of threat and mirth, but here she's all seductive danger, all the time. Such seemingly comic-relief scenes as seeing her using Reiner's car windshield as a sexual device, or try to force through a confession in a church on a priest that wants none of it, play out as if they are evocative of an oddity or  perverse aberration from a normally cool, calm, collected, scheming partner who is always in control.

Luckily, Scott has a fantastic cast of actors to work with, who all add an element of plausibility to these complicated characters, most of whom have McCarthy's somewhat peculiar dialogue to power through -- lesser actors would certainly have stumbled.  Even so, Cameron Diaz, whose sleek, ostentatious attire and spotted tattoos evoke the same dangerous beauty of the pet cheetahs, with Malkina's desire to chase and devour dumber, slower people like little jackrabbits, plays the role in too obvious, conniving a way to ever see her as much more than an underhanded 'Medea' from the get go.  Angelina Jolie had originally been cast in the role, which may have been more on target.

Scott and McCarthy play their cards very close to the chest throughout, to the point that, for most of the film, we're uncertain just what's going on, as the counselor woos his shiningly innocent lady, Laura (Cruz, To Rome with Love), and gets dirt on his pristine suit by rubbing elbows with seedy, avaricious characters traversing darker walks of life.  In the final third, cards are finally played, but many in the audience who aren't thoroughly confused by the interminably vague way the plot unravels will likely find it too analytical in its developments to be properly emotionally compelled, only occasionally of interest due to McCarthy's abstractly existential conversations about the grasp for survival and the clarity of seeing, up close, the shape of one's inevitable death.

As the climax begins to envelop the story and deaths begin to mount, it doesn't become more scary, thrilling, pulse-pounding, or even maddening; it just gets colder, bleaker, and more elusive to our emotional grasp.  It's a clinical treatment of its subject matter that plays out in a wholly external world with an impossibly introspective delivery that might work well in the inverted storytelling of a novel, but in a movie where things should be shown rather than said, the quotable-but-less-than-notable The Counselor would rather say everything it has to say in words, while showing us as little as possible.

Qwipster's rating:

2013 Vince Leo