It features a wealth of talent both in front of and behind the lens. It offers up two Oscar winners, several nominees, and a script by a beloved Pulitzer Prize recipient. In fact, the last time this combination came together, the result was No Country for Old Men, itself an Awards Season juggernaut. So what, pray tell, went wrong with The Counselor? How could an original screenplay by Cormac McCarthy, directed by Ridley Scott, fall so far short of its intended mark? The answer is right up there on the screen for everyone to see, unfortunately. No matter the acting acumen on display, no matter the moralizing inserted in like awkward pauses on a first date, this is a movie that makes little or no sense and seems to strive on such pointless ambiguities. The character’s motives seem somewhat clear. It’s everything else that’s a vague mess.
Michael Fassbender plays a nameless lawyer known only as “Counselor.” There are hints and innuendos that he’s in financial trouble, though he does seem capable of traveling to Amsterdam to buy his fiance/wife/life partner (Penelope Cruz) a 3.5-carat diamond. Working with a cartel-connected hotshot named Reiner (Javier Bardem), the Counselor hopes to cure his money woes with a huge drug deal. Via a bunch of cash fronted by yet another mysterious man named Westray (Brad Pitt), he will buy up a big shipment of dope, drop it onto the American market, and bank about $20 million. At least, that’s the plan. However, not everyone is happy with this arrangement. Not Reiner’s sex-obsessed gal pal (Cameron Diaz) and not a currently jailed client of the lawyer (Rosie Perez) with a secret connection to the crime. Of course, nothing ends up going right.
As a novelist, few can argue with Cormac McCarthy, from
Lonesome Dove to No Country to All the Pretty Horses to The Road, he is a known and respected name in literature… and, by the looks of the lame narrative he’s crafted for his first spec script, he should probably stay in books. The Counselor is terrible, a ragtag collection of inferences and suggestions that never ends up coming together to make for a satisfying story. We aren’t told why our lead is so desperate for dough, scenes are tossed in (like the trip to the Netherlands) that never pay off, and every time something sinister is mentioned (like the wire-based decapitation device known as a “bolito”), you can be assured it will eventually make an appearance later on in the film.
Nothing works here. Most of the performances are phoned in, with only Bardem and his Guy Fieri hairstyle trying for any kind of character, and the dialogue seems derived from a manic depressive’s guidebook to backseat philosophizing. Everyone speaks in the kind of overly complicated platitudes that only a novelist can conceive of. Like Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert used to point out, no one talks like this in reality. When they are not personalizing or parsing through the various meanings of “death,” they’re mimicking a middle school sleepover where S-E-X is the only topic on the agenda. The whole drug deal is placed on the back burner so the cast can spend nearly two hours endlessly talking smut to and at each other.
As for Scott, the man still can’t find his footing outside the various genre masterworks he made in the ’70s and ’80s. He drenches every scene in so much sun that the movie eventual suffers from heat stroke, and he doesn’t understand how to pace out McCarthy’s verbally overwrought asides. We need someone to drive this sucker and neither the director nor writer are capable of getting behind the wheel and revving things up. Instead, we get slow burn as entertainment inertia and it just doesn’t work. Fancy it up with as many famous faces as possible, but The Counselor still suffers from its flash over substance strategies. It’s a waste of time and talent.