The Counselor, Sir Ridley Scott’s latest blow in a series of vexing disappointments (Robin Hood, Prometheus), is a confounding and pretentious snafu that’s puzzled at what it wants to be. Pulitzer Prize winning author Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian, The Road) wrote the screenplay, his first screenplay, and is responsible for the film’s worst failures, and not even the amazing cast of Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, and Cameron Diaz can totally rescue it. The confusion begins with its tone, and its closest cousin in genre is certainly the neo-noir, but only on a cosmetic level that influences the broadest possible structure of the plot. Tropes of the Western hero are also in play, written to conjure a grandiose stage of scope and scale for the characters to occupy. This is usual McCarthy territory, literally and figuratively, including 2007’s best picture winning adaptation of No Country for Old Men, which is a much different beast than this picture and defies comparison. Unlike previous work by McCarthy, mastering and/or subverting these conventions is not a priority, and that’s where the problems begin.
Take a look at our nameless protagonist, referred to only as Counselor. This staple of the Western is normally used to construct a hero of mythic dimension, but here Michael Fassbender’s “Counselor” couldn’t be further from Clint Eastwood’s Blondie. Instead, Counselor coasts through his vanilla lifestyle passively, spending most of his screen time letting himself get told what to do by the characters around him. Brad Pitt’s infinitely charming Westray, a scholar of the drug trade, is acutely aware of Counselor’s lack of confidence, even pointing it out to him in as a plea to back off from making a terrible mistake. We realize his chronic state of insecurity is meant to make a statement on the modern decay of man and greed, so all that remains is your business title. Thus, his profession becomes who he is, and why he’s never named beyond his job. If the viewer’s meant to relate to this, it doesn’t work. He’s unlikeable, and worse, bland. His confusion is meant to be one with our own, but he becomes that frustrating friend always asking for advice but never taking it. Thank the movie gods for Michael Fassbender, or the chief character wouldn’t have worked, aided in part by great chemistry with Cruz.
A dramatically stationary main character damages the film, but the pacing cripples it. Wisely, McCarthy never leaves the main characters off screen for more than a few minutes, storing the brutally violent bits lingering in the shadows, and erupting only occasionally with the most shocking murders on screen this year. Bardem’s character Reiner as well as Westray both tell cruel anecdotes on what these cartel thugs are capable of, but by showing such restraint in when and how we see them, they are never personalized or given a sense of soul. This evokes the feeling of a sub-human industrial complex of misery and suffering, making death in the desert a frightening certainty. This intends to shake up the stakes and and provide rocket fuel for the film’s motor, and indeed it would have, but the driver never really hits the gas. The pacing of The Counselor mimics the experience of driving a Lamborghini Mucielago, a 632 horsepower beautiful beast of a car, through a 20 mile an hour speed trap. In this metaphor, the speed trap is the dialogue.
Like McCarthy sometimes writes female characters as suffering from penis envy, he wrote The Counselor with book-envy. So much of the film’s imperfections rest on the armchair philosophy characters choke out at eachother, like they’re coughing up hairballs of nonsense they hope made more sense than they thought. This works in literature, but it can’t in film, not when it’s this incessant. Bardem’s by far the most proficient at this, followed by Pitt, and they gave their lines meaning I’m not convinced they’d have had otherwise. Diaz isn’t so lucky, and hardly ever sounds convincing. Her performance is like a magnet, at times you can’t but be helped to give into her seductions, but in others you’re compulsively forced away. To the dismay of cinemagoers expecting a thriller, they’ll find a string of set pieces meditating on greed, greed, greed. Nearly every character is a tragic hero in some way, whose fatal flaw compels them to be greedy even when knowing they shouldn’t. Breaking the rules is a noble task, but breaking so many of them so as to alienate your target audience is not. Were McCarthy and Scott less prolific figures, they’d have heard more “NO!”’s in pre-production and found a finer gradation between dialogue right out of a Terrance Malick film voice-over and pulpy fun. There’s still enough of the latter (including the most enjoyably strange sex scene this year) to make the film somewhat enjoyable, and the cast, direction, and totally the unique experience alone is of high value, and boosts the film’s overall score.
Repeat viewings may unearth the hidden meanings beneath the inaccessible screenplay, but as it stands today, The Counselor is a pretentious and indulgent movie that wished it was lyrical literature but instead came out a lackluster film. Even while being modestly enjoyable, it is one of the biggest disappointments this year