Counselor, The (United States/United Kingdom, 2013)

October 25, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Counselor, The Poster

When I first heard about The Counselor, it became one of my most anticipated titles of 2013. The talent alone made it seem like a "can't miss" proposition: Ridley Scott directing; Cormac McCarthy, the man responsible for the source material of No Country for Old Men, making his screenwriting debut; and an A-list cast headlined by Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, and Brad Pitt on board. Then troubling signs began to materialize: an underwhelming marketing campaign, a lack of festival showings, and few press screenings. Now that I've seen it, I can understand the studio's ambivalence about promoting The Counselor. It's not so much a bad film as it is a disappointing one. A very disappointing one.

Most of the problems can be traced to McCarthy's script, which doesn't work. It's as if he took many of the core elements of No Country for Old Men and minimized the ones that worked while emphasizing those that were frustrating and unsuccessful. The central story of The Counselor is unremarkable and the thrills it offers are often manufactured rather than organic. The film's big car chase lacks suspense because there's only one practical outcome. Other moments of tension are similarly diluted. This is a tale in which characters are boxed in with no way out. We, as viewers, are simply watching to see how long it takes before the hammer falls. The Counselor ends abruptly, making us wonder if director Ridley Scott lost the final few pages of the screenplay. Walking out of the theater, I was assailed by a sense of "Is that it?"

Despite the rather restricted nature of narrative content, there's no shortage of verbiage. Most of the characters in The Counselor are afflicted with a bad case of verbal diarrhea. They talk and talk and talk. They philosophize. But little of what they say is interesting. It's pretentious, to be sure, but not thought-provoking. A three minute dissertation on diamonds is an early indication that pacing is going to be a problem. The most interesting discourse involves Javier Bardem's Reiner recounting how his predatory girlfriend, Malkina (Cameron Diaz), fucked his car. We're provided with some images to enhance our understanding of the situation which involves comparisons to a catfish. It ends with Reiner admitting that he wasn't that turned-on because the peep show was "too gynecological."

It's not just that the dialogue is dense - a lot of French films succeed because the characters don't shut up - but many of these characters seem to exist for the sole purpose of giving long-winded monologues. McCarthy develops a thin narrative about a drug shipment gone awry and populates it with poorly developed individuals who like to talk. It's difficult (bordering on impossible) to sympathize with any of them. Not only are they all morally bankrupt but they're boring. The lead character (Michael Fassbender), referred to only as "Counselor" (he's a defense attorney), is supposed to be a conflicted man, trapped between the temptation to do evil and the love of a good woman (Penelope Cruz), but he comes across as slick and smarmy. He becomes involved in drug running because he needs money to pay for a 3.8 karat engagement ring and finance a lavish lifestyle. Predictably, it all goes wrong with disastrous results. The most interesting character is Malkina because she's so unreservedly vicious - a true man-eater. This may be the most interesting portrayal Cameron Diaz has provided in a long time, but it's wasted. At least Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt can pretend this film doesn't exist and concentrate on promoting 12 Years a Slave.

Perhaps the central fault is that McCarthy's style needs the filter of a strong adaptation. It's accepted that his novels are "difficult reads" and there's a sense that the content of The Counselor might work better as a book, where themes can be extended and characters better developed. Ridley Scott appears to understand McCarthy's tone - the film is replete with gruesomely witty moments that include decapitations and severed fingers. Still, pacing is an issue, and there's not much Scott can do with a screenplay that pauses every few minutes so a character can issue a lengthy speech full of false profundity. Ultimately, the reason The Counselor doesn't work is the reason it was so highly anticipated: the Cormac McCarthy screenplay. Good acting by recognizable stars and competent direction by an acclaimed filmmaker can't rescue this deeply flawed script.

Counselor, The (United States/United Kingdom, 2013)

Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Rosie Perez
Screenplay: Cormac McCarthy
Cinematography: Dariusz Wolski
Music: Daniel Pemberton
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Run Time: 1:57
U.S. Release Date: 2013-10-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1