Sir Ridley Scott. Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Kingdom of Heaven, American Gangster and Prometheus. Cormac McCarthy. Pulitzer prize winning author of the The Road, that and other books being adapted into films such as No Country for Old Men, All the Pretty Horses, and Child of God. You put the two together, in this case with McCarthy in his first original screenplay, and expect something special right? Sadly if you have that reasonable expectation, you will be disappointed.
The Counselor is a very simple film with a very convoluted execution. The Counselor (Michael Fassbender, Shame, Prometheus) proposes to his girlfriend Laura (Penélope Cruz). To fund this endeavor and to satiate a greed for more wealth he steps up his involvement with criminals from being their lawyer to actively funding a drug smuggling operation across the Mexican border. He is supported and advised in this by former clients, now partners, Reiner (Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men, Skyfall) and Westray (Brad Pitt, Fight Club, Seven). Their words of warning do not dissuade his involvement and when the drugs are hijacked, the cartel behind the operation suspect foul play and our trio end up down shit creek without a paddle. Also involved is Malkina (Cameron Diaz, Charlie’s Angels) as Reiner’s partner/girlfriend who has more than a passing interest in the drug deal.
So why convoluted? Cormac McCarthy. Yes, one of the most celebrated writers in America has turned in a screenplay that bogs down what, with such a great director and cast, could have been a slam dunk. The Counselor feels like about 12 conversations McCarthy had poorly scripted out and then strung together with a very loose plot. They detract from the story, reveal little about the characters and in themselves are pretty awful; using 500 words where 50 will do. The interactions and conversations are very heavy handed You know shit will go bad, you don’t need to elaborate and explain about a method of killing in detail. No foreshadowing is laid out here, each inference directly leads to an outcome. The writing is clunky and lacks any deftness or subtlety.
About a month ago I saw another new adaptation of McCarthy’s work, Child of God. This film was powerful with very little dialogue. Even in his earlier works, dialogue seems more out of necessity than anything else. The situations and drama created for characters give a lot of richness to McCarthy’s stories. His embellishment of the writing here completely trips over itself. Think of the father and his child in The Road or Tommy Lee Jones as Sheriff Bell in No Country For Old Men with his soft spoken commentary of the evils he was discovering. Hell, in the latter Bardem stole the show with his portrayal of Anton Chigurh and how much dialogue was needed to achieve that? Sometimes in films you have characters who go off on tangents or embellish stories to make a point. Choosing how to convey that and doing it successfully can create some of the most iconic roles and scenes in cinema (e.g Tarantino). In The Counselor, McCarthy seems set on making every role of this type from a conversational point of view even when it goes against the very character they are portraying. Westray (Brad Pitt) is a man of brevity and preparedness, ready to move quickly to survive, yet the script thinks nothing of giving him a 10 minute disjointed speech that essentially says ‘if you deal with the cartel and drugs, you might get into trouble.’
Ridley Scott is one of my favorite directors, early in the film we have a beautiful sweeping shot across a Mexican shanty town. Pure Scott. So I hoped this would persist. Instead we have a smattering of beautiful south-western landscapes shown while the rest of the film is somewhat bland. Mexico, Texas, London, Amsterdam, the film jumps all over the globe and yet fails to really show off these locales. It’s as if their use was intended to imbue excitement but all it really achieved was in contributing to the disjointedness of the script and plot. At one point, in fear of their lives, The Counselor and Laura choose to meet secretly in Boise…Boise? Lets take a sojourn to Boise, for no real reason other than the adorable pronunciation of ‘Boise’ by Cruz. It is a thriller lacking thrills and focus, there are some moments of tension, one truly heartbreaking scene but nothing really to place the film amongst its richer brethren in the Scott back catalog. The plot is simple but the settings and dialogue seem designed to make it more complex than it actually is. Tangents in plot and dialogue detract from the core. It aspires to be clever and is not. Technically is is well shot but I had hoped for something far more memorable.
Fassbender puts in a strange performance, at times riveting to watch and at other times disinterested or flat in his delivery. Although I think that is largely due to the dialogue he is tasked with. He really is an actor I admire, though, especially with the film choices he has made. I don’t hold him responsible for taking on a project with Scott and McCarthy attached. Javier Bardem… between this and SkyfallI am not exactly sure what Bardem really looks like anymore with all the hairstyles and tans. Bardem brings to life fascinating characters and does great work, even here amid the myriad of shit he copes well with what he is given. I will highlight the ‘catfish conversation’ regarding Diaz’ character as a particular highlight.
Ahhh Cameron Diaz. If you thought my scorn was great for McCarthy’s writing, it increases exponentially when Ms. Diaz is delivering it. Stilted, awkward, stiff, unconvincing. All are kind words to describe the woefully miscast Diaz in the role of Malkina, some kind of sexually depraved Cruella DeVille. Rumor has it the part was intended for Angelina Jolie, and I can see how a more accomplished, seductive and intelligent actress may have been more successful. It really is hard to fathom how this character (as portrayed by Diaz) can manipulate and mastermind much of the film when she seems unable to read the clumsy dialogue without it being held up for her to read monotonously from a card behind the camera. We have to endure a scene where she visits confession, in spite of not even being a Catholic. This is to remind us of two things, 1) she is a bad person and 2) Cormac McCarthy pulled this dialogue out of his ass. The one positive aspect of the character is that she owns pet cheetahs. Yes, two of them. Lovely-looking animals. Malkina sees herself as a huntress and as such has to have these things. In all seriousness the cheetahs come across as the best performers in the film as they are not required to deliver any of McCarthy’s dialogue. Finally we have Penélope Cruz as Laura, the love of the Counselor’s life. Our introduction to her, in his bead in the opening scene, presents a beautiful but modest woman, embarrassed to state her sexual desires in the face of questioning by the Counselor. She is the moral center, the pure thing in this film about greed and corruption. Cruz is her usual adorable self and the one sympathetic character in the film. I think this is where the major failing lies, we are basically presented with characters you don’t really find yourself liking or caring about.
I am curious to know a woman’s opinion on the film as one of the central themes was the desires of women. Like some of McCarthy’s other work there is a smattering of misogyny. Here it is explained that the role of a man in keeping a woman happy is to keep women from getting bored. The drug smuggling plot is set in motion due to this, the required acquisition of wealth to indulge the Counselor’s fiancee and pay for the upcoming wedding and life together. The failure of the scheme, ensuing fallout, and preached lessons suggest the folly in pursuing women, based on the logic established earlier. However the Laura character that drives the motives of the protagonist is a simple type, pure in nature, religious. She even refuses to be told how much her engagement ring may be worth. Greed and wealth are not what drive her. Her counterpoint is the character of Malkina, whose entire purpose is driven by greed and possession. The Counselor may be interpreted as misogynistic or instead supportive of genuine women, instead casting criticism over a man’s perception, misunderstanding and subsequent actions. It is an interesting facet to a otherwise derivative film.
To sum up: If you like cheetahs, go see this film*. They’re cool and you get to see them run around pretty Texas landscapes, sneer disapprovingly in the back of a car during a chase scene, sit regally next to a pool and sniff the occasional corpse with a chilled nonchalance. Sadly the other 90% of the film is so underwhelming and soulless, that if you are NOT interested in cheetahs then I would suggest you avoid it. The Counselor lacks both focus and purpose, and considering the amount of talent that was behind this, it ends up just being embarrassingly and frustratingly bad.
* Here are pictures of the cheetahs so you don’t need to go see the film.