By R. David
“The Counselor” is a wordy and clumsy thriller that is almost defiantly short on thrills. Every once in a while – thanks to Ridley Scott’s typically taut, icy direction – the movie shows a glimmer of what could have been had writer Cormack McCarthy (the famed novelist submitting his first original screenplay here) not been so apparently steadfast in sabotaging his own film by having his characters spew an endless barrage of bloated and pretentious homilies that are so heavy-handed, ill-conceived and numbing, they verge on the hysterical rather than the profound. Scott has assembled a talented and beautiful cast – which includes Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, and Brad Pitt – and captures some picturesque scenery and stylish action sequences; but these elements are all in service of this dopey and ponderous screenplay; and a story that goes nowhere – or at least nowhere satisfying for the audience.
Fassbender plays the titular protagonist, an Armani suit-wearing, Bentley-driving litigator who is never referred to by name, only his professional moniker. It seems his greed has led him into bed with some unsavory types – Bardem’s crooked night club owner and assorted members of a ruthless drug trafficking cartel among them – just as he has found the love of his life (Cruz). Near as I can figure it from McCarthy’s frustratingly opaque plotting, which isn’t so much complex as convoluted and lacking in detail, Mr. Counselor somehow gets involved in aiding a drug deal which goes bad when one cartel rips off the other because of course it does. But his only apparent connection to all of this seems to be that he sprung a kid from jail who is some sort of cartel errand boy. A rival cartel kills the kid and steals what is, I guess, a much-coveted electric car starter. No, you didn’t misread that. The kid carries this device in his motorcycle helmet as if it were coke he was trying to smuggle into prison up his ass. Rather than simply grabbing the kid, removing the helmet and taking this thing, the rival cartel goes to the trouble of staking him out, taking precise measurements of his motorcycle and setting up a clothesline-like decapitation trap along the road he zips back and forth across on his cycle each day (good thing he is apparently the only person who travels this otherwise conveniently deserted stretch of road or a car would have snapped this thing within about two minutes and then the drug dealers would have to go to Plan B which was presumably to fly above the kid’s speeding motorcycle in a helicopter and try to catch him by dropping a big net). After several hours of waiting – again, this all feels like an illogical waste of time – the kid comes zooming up the road, loses his head, and his killers claim the bounty that they went to such tireless lengths to secure; which they promptly take to a garage and plug into a little tanker truck that they most certainly couldn’t have started any other way. Then those guys are mowed down by a rival gang (The one the kid worked for? Good question. Who knows?) in a roadside shoot-out over this amazing, hard-to-start truck. And somehow, The Counselor is to blame for all of this… or something… I don’t effing know, man!
Obviously, none of this makes any sense. Despite the fact that whatever role he had in these dirty dealings is apparently so insignificant it’s not even worth mentioning in any kind of detail, and his lack of involvement in any double-crossing going on seems so obvious, Counselor Guy is told repeatedly that he and his now-fiancé will be targeted and most likely end up dead. Except he’s never told this simple bit of information flat out; and he’s not just informed of this once – or even twice. Oh no, no, no. McCarthy would rather have several different characters – in long-winded, lengthy monologues – all beat around the bush with him, speaking in scripture-like musings, and engaging in some sort of competition to see who can come up with the most obscure and cryptic way of saying “you’re fucked”. Why nobody wants to answer The Counselor’s questions or give him any sort of straight answer but is perfectly content to spend upwards of five minutes on random anecdotes and speechifying is one of “The Counselor’s” most odd, frustrating and hilarious quirks. Around the fourth or fifth of these out-of-the-blue, jabber-jawing tirades I started to wonder if this was all for real; like maybe the film was setting us up for some big twist where all these crazy, alternate-universe actions would be explained. Maybe the guy is already dead and he just doesn’t know it or some shit like that? Unfortunately, this movie isn’t that clever.
Clearly McCarthy isn’t interested in story and logic so much as character motivations, the ramifications of their decisions, and ruminations on death, relationships, business, and sex. This would be fine if he had anything interesting, exciting or original to say about any of these things. Instead of coming up with the deep, twisty noir he obviously fancies “The Counselor” to be, McCarthy piles on cumbersome high-mindedness to either distract from his shaky narrative or in an effort to subvert the trappings of the genre. Either way, it doesn’t work. In fact, it’s often howlingly ludicrous. A movie doesn’t have to be narratively structured or even coherent to be gripping and profound; but all of this highfalutin existentialism slathered on top of the impenetrable plotting, goofball characters and hackneyed nihilism may succeed in rescuing “The Counselor” from the typical, but only to push it into the laughably overwrought.
This movie is completely baffling – not just from a storytelling standpoint, or in pondering how the marriage of two talents of the highest order in their respective fields resulted in such an insane turkey as this weirdo misfire – but in terms of exactly how seriously the audience is supposed to be taking all this. There’s a scene in this movie where Cameron Diaz (playing Javier Bardem’s girlfriend-ish thing) fucks the windshield of a Ferrari. You heard me. Bardem likens this viewing experience to seeing a “bottom-feeding catfish” suctioned to the side of its glass aquarium. That’s right; Mr. “No Country For Old Men” actually had this idea. And wrote it down. And then Ridley Scott put it in a movie and convinced Cameron Diaz to act it out (sort of) and Javier Bardem to react to it (Bug Eyes, is essentially his chosen method for all you thespians out there) and describe it. And then I paid money to see it. That shit all happened! But I digress. Bardem recounts this event to Fassbender as if it is to be some deep, philosophical metaphor or warning. For what, I don’t know. And neither does Bardem’s character who freely admits he’s not sure what it all means or why he just shared any of it. He informs us that the experience was “too gynecological to be sexy”, but insists that seeing something like that “changes a man”. Major Warning, Bros: Do NOT, under any circumstances, let your girlfriend fuck your car windshield. It will seriously mess with your head. You’re welcome. – Cormac.
This sequence is par for the course of “The Counselor”. I can draw a through line to what McCarthy is getting at with this scene based on what plays out between Bardem and Diaz in the end, but that doesn’t mean the sequence isn’t batshit insane and loaded with self-satisfied pretention on the writer’s part. How is the audience supposed to react to this moment? Clearly we’re supposed to find Bardem’s retelling of the outrageous events – his dialog, reactions and expressions – amusing. But McCarthy frames the whole scene as if there is a lesson being taught or a theme being revealed. Is it supposed to funny or is it supposed to be serious? Ditto the movie as a whole. Is it some over the top joke, winking at its own supremely silly earnestness or does McCarthy really believe in all these Shakespearian soliloquies he keeps awkwardly trying to graft onto all of these would-be pivotal scenes? Outrageousness and pretention are rarely a good mix and almost never result in great drama. Now, unintentional comedy on the other hand, that’s a different story.
The movie opens with Fassbender and Cruz literally under the sheets. He keeps asking her to tell him in explicit detail what she wants him to do to her. The best she can muster is, “Touch me… down there.” Other amazing and totally not awkward lines of dialog in this scene include: Cruz: “I should clean it first.” Fassbender: “I don’t want you to.” And Cruz declaring, “You’ve ruined me for all other men,” after a few seconds of cunnilingus. Clearly this chick needs to get out more. This scene would be icky and uncomfortable if it weren’t so damn hilarious. I enjoy a laugh, but it’s probably not the way you want to start your violent, seedy underworld drama that has lofty intentions of waxing poetic about life and death and the moral implications of zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
Maybe that scene just didn’t come out right, or maybe I missed what was so mildly seductive about it. Maybe McCarthy actually writes great sexual dialog and I’m missing the noirish homage of it all. Nope. As if to positively prove that these two people are the worst fucking lovers ever and the fact that McCarthy should never again write sexual dialog, in another scene Fassbender is on the phone with Cruz when he says something like, “Life is in bed with you, everything else is just waiting.” Then he asks, “Is this phone sex,” because as we have been made fully aware at this point, these two beautiful grown adults have a handle on seduction techniques that is about on par with those of the average 12 year-old. Cruz’s response is not audible, but apparently the answer was ‘no’ because Fassbender says ‘goodnight’ and promptly hangs up the phone. End scene. If it wasn’t for all the decapitations and drug dealer shit, “The Counselor” could be a sequel to “The Room”.
Actually, the best way to describe these moments is to liken them to something out of “Showgirls”; another film concocted by a powerhouse writer (Joe Eszterhas) and director (Paul Verhoven, both coming off career highs after their collaboration on “Basic Instinct”) that, despite falling squarely in each man’s lurid wheelhouse, was so ill-conceived, self-serious and unaware of its own limitations, became a notoriously campy bomb and more or less destroyed the careers of everyone involved. “The Counselor” won’t end any careers and isn’t quite at the “Showgirls” apex of awfulness, but it’s a catastrophe of a similar order. Rarely is a theatrical release from an A-list writer, director and cast so unconvincing and hilarity-inducing in its faux heavy-breathing attempts at titillation and sexual intrigue. “The Counselor” joins the likes of “Showgirls” in this elite company. At least “Showgirls” had the courage of its convictions though. “The Counselor” is one of those movies with stars too big to actually engage in sex scenes anywhere close to the sort they describe here. In other words, guys: Sorry, no boobs.
All of these flaws are all the more maddening because “The Counselor” does have potential, and teases us with several great moments, suggesting what might have been with a better script. One where the actors might have had a better handle on how they were supposed to be playing these nuts-o characters and weren’t asked to recite dialog that sounds like random words strewn together by a cracked-out monkey someone left in front of a word processor. “The Counselor’s” few positive atributes are all courtesy of Ridley Scott’s direction. He is the film’s saving grace. The action sequences pack a visceral punch and the violence resonates, the camera angles are moody and atmospheric (in its best, most effective moments, “The Counselor” recalls the Coen Brothers’ film adaptation of McCarthy’s “No Country For Old Men”), and he is generally able to find the right tone for a given scene. The movie always looks terrific and has a keen sense of time and place (credit should also go to cinematographer Dariusz Wolski who effectively leads the audience through high society slickness, sprawling desert landscapes and dank, sweaty underworlds). But Scott’s terrific filmmaking contributions here are repeatedly undermined by McCarthy’s senseless script. That scene where the kid on the cycle gets killed is expertly shot and memorable, but its very existence makes no sense. Similarly, the shoot-out over that tanker truck is staged with Scott’s usual grim savvy (almost all of the action sequences are free of dramatic music which creates unnerving tension), but is undone by the fact that we are never clear as to who’s who and what their motivations are.
These exciting moments are also too few and far between, which would be fine if the script had something going on in the interim, but instead we get just get all the aforementioned windy pontificating. It doesn’t help either that the handsome and talented cast mostly underwhelms here. Fassbender is adequate as the lead, but he whiffs all the romantic stuff. Bardem (continuing his cinematic mission to only appear on screen in the hairstylings of an insane person) gives an all-over-the-map performance that makes its hard for viewers to get a handle on his character. I guess he’s supposed to be a complicated cat, hiding his torment and fear under a transparent party-boy exterior. I’m tempted to say he pulls it off, but again, I have no idea if indeed that’s what we’re to make of him. Brad Pitt’s in this movie. He has a ponytail and a cowboy hat, spouts some inane gibberish with the rest of these people who seemingly orbit around The Counselor just to be frustratingly vague and then just disappear for a while (he’s a dope too, because despite his supposed steely underworld savvy, he doesn’t recognize an obvious honey-pot even though the least noir-familiar audience members likely will – but hey, whatever the script calls for, logic be damned, right?). And Cruz is wasted in a role that could have gone to literally any actress.
Then there is Cameron Diaz. Woefully inept and miscast here, she is on a whole other level of obnoxious and unconvincing in this thing. Supposedly playing a heartless, sexual, powerful, manipulative, dangerous vixen (feel free to insert any other clichéd femme fatale superlatives here), she succeeds in making the audience hate her, though not for the reasons the script intends. Besides her gold tooth, affinity for cheetahs (and watching them hunt – because she wears gaudy animal print dresses and mercilessly kills people – “Get it, you fucking morons?! – Love, Cormac.”), and car-fucking tendencies; her character is all spoiled-brat posturing, breathy dialog and icy stares. It’s a cartoon character that is not the least bit intimidating or effective, made all the worse by Diaz’s unnerving expressions, gestures and line deliveries. The only way she’d be half as terrifying as the film keeps insisting she is is if you all of a sudden woke up one morning married to this duck-faced selfie come to life.
But it’s Cormac McCarthy who is the main offender here. He is undisputedly a terrific novelist, and there’s a chance that this script and its dialog would read better as a novel. He should probably stick to letting other writers adapt his works for film, or at the very least never again try to infuse his bleak morality plays with Elmore Leonard-like spice so he might avoid another disaster like “The Counselor” all together. Man, I hate this movie.
1½ stars out of 4