Film Review: ‘The Counselor’

The Counselor Movie

Cormac McCarthy's first original script is nearly all dialogue, but it’s a lousy story, ineptly constructed and rendered far too difficult to follow.

The trailers for Ridley Scott’s “The Counselor” make it look like the kind of gonzo crime thriller his brother Tony used to make. Au contraire, this Cormac McCarthy-scripted potboiler turns out to be a chillingly detached, borderline-sociopathic account of how getting mixed up in a Mexican drug deal can ruin the lives of all involved. (Hint: It’s a good way to wind up pickled in septic barrels or headless in a landfill.) What might have made a mean, sinewy indie thriller escalates in budget, but not necessarily excitement, as Scott and an appallingly miscast group of A-list stars fumble their way through thickets of dense philosophical dialogue, alienating audiences who would’ve happily settled for a more conventional genre movie.

Capitalizing on the love Hollywood has shown him with its adaptations of “No Country for Old Men,” “The Road” and “All the Pretty Horses,” McCarthy decided to stray from his comfort zone of terse, no-nonsense novels to try his hand at screenwriting, cooking up a globe-spanning doozy with roots just south of the Rio Grande border. The title — a perverse lawyer joke, considering that the counselor in question spends all his time seeking advice from others — refers to the pic’s protagonist, a typically by-the-book Texas attorney (Michael Fassbender) who, his back against the metaphorical wall, decides just this once to openly violate the law.

Whatever his strengths in print, McCarthy clearly doesn’t understand how drama and suspense work onscreen, pouring most of his efforts into crafting impenetrably baroque conversations between loosely sketched stereotypes, wrongheadedly convinced that confusion and a growing sense of dread are sufficient to keep us riveted. We first meet Fassbender’s character in bed, where his sexual chemistry with soon-to-be-fiancee Laura (Penelope Cruz) is presumed reason enough to hope the couple lives to screw another day. Meanwhile, everything else in the film points to just the opposite: that this lawyer has already crossed a moral line, sealing both of their fates — and those of everyone else he touches — in a kind of Faustian bargain.

McCarthy unveils a splintered web of associates, some direct, some one or two degrees removed, but all involved in what should have been a simple scheme to transform a few thousand dollars into $20 million by investing in a cocaine scam. Simple schemes have a way of getting awfully complicated when the screenwriter responsible decides to obfuscate the basics (drugs are stashed in a septic truck, driven across the Tex-Mex border, recovered in El Paso and then sent to Chicago to be sold on the streets), focusing instead on the ruthless obstacles that lie in his characters’ path.

The counselor — whom McCarthy never gives a proper name, nor a proper personality — merely wants to settle his debts, then settle down with Laura. This much we know about him: He’s devilishly handsome, 100% devoted and dangerously naive, getting mixed up with all manner of psychos without suspecting that those relationships might come back to haunt him. Can he trust pretty-boy middleman Westray  (Brad Pitt, effectively playing the grown-up, sobered-up version of his “True Romance” stoner-philosopher)? And what about Reiner (Javier Bardem), who runs a nightclub business as a half-assed front for his shadier dealings?

Having previously played McCarthy’s most iconic character, the cattle gun-toting hitman Anton Chigurh, Bardem tackles a more flamboyant role here as this Versace-wearing cross between coked-up Robert Downey Jr. and spastic Christopher Walken. Though everything here serves to echo the for-shame philosophical monologue at the end of “No Country for Old Men” — in which crime has grown crueler, impervious to any law, on earth or in heaven — the entire story serves to illustrate the inexorable consequences of casting one’s lot with those who have no respect for life.

It’s written as tragedy, but enacted with such cold indifference that one is left reeling from the experience, which Scott has directed elegantly enough to feel like a feature-length advert for the criminal lifestyle, rather than a condemnation of same. Everyone in “The Counselor” comes decked out in designer clothes of some sort. For Fassbender and Cruz, it’s Armani. Bardem’s flashiest accessory is his g.f., Malkina (Cameron Diaz), who sports a gold tooth, silver fingernails and a full-back cheetah tattoo.

Malkina may look like mere arm candy, but she’s not to be underestimated. In fact, those who bother to unpack McCarthy’s unnecessarily obtuse script will find that she’s actually the mastermind behind most of the mayhem in “The Counselor” — a ruthless bitch whose veins no doubt course with liquid nitrogen. Malkina eavesdrops on Reiner’s conversations and discreetly calls the shots behind the scenes that result in several decapitations, that grisly means of death favored by Mexican cartel capos.

In an early scene, Reiner happens to mention something called a “bolito,” a mechanical device consisting of a loop of steel and a self-powered motor that tightens gradually until the unlucky wearer loses his head. As with Chekhov’s gun, one doesn’t bring up such a weapon without intending to use it before the show’s over. Although McCarthy’s script leaves so much else to the imagination, it figures that Scott (who also brought us the sight of Anthony Hopkins serving brains from Ray Liotta’s open-capped cranium in “Hannibal”) would insist on indulging such a spectacle.

That, as audiences have no doubt already heard, is but one of several indelible images “The Counselor” bequeaths upon a public undeserving of such punishment. Sure to become the most notorious — joining Sharon Stone’s “Basic Instinct” interrogation and the “Wild Things” pool scene in the pantheon of bad-movie golden moments — is a sequence in which Diaz mounts the hood of Bardem’s yellow Ferrari, complete with sound effects.

With the exception of Bruno Ganz as an Amsterdam diamond dealer and “Breaking Bad’s” Dean Norris as an over-curious drug buyer, none of the other actor-to-part pairings feel right in this film. (Such recognizable pros as Rosie Perez, Edgar Ramirez and John Leguizamo, uncredited, all distract in roles better suited to unfamiliar faces.) But Diaz is by far the most committed to an impossible character, wearing that same unnaturally menacing expression Kristin Scott Thomas did in “Only God Forgives”earlier this year, as if dying to acknowledge the role’s camp potential.

In helming, Scott makes minimal use of music or flashy camerawork (two ways in which the film couldn’t be less like a Tony Scott picture), content to let McCarthy’s words take the fore, lest his own contributions distract. The script is nearly all dialogue, including several eloquent spoken passages toward the end, but it’s a lousy story, ineptly constructed and rendered far too difficult to follow. The film doesn’t end so much as stop.

Some might argue that “The Counselor” demands a second viewing, though the first is too unpleasant to recommend, even in a so-bad-it’s-good context. The industry is too often intimidated by intellect, and this project bears all the signs of perfectly smart, talented people putting their faith in a rotten piece of material simply because it bore McCarthy’s name. When the dust settles, heads are gonna roll, and it won’t be a pretty sight.

Film Review: 'The Counselor'

Reviewed at Fox Studios, Century City, Calif., Oct. 22, 2013. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 113 MIN. 

Production

A 20th Century Fox release of a Fox 2000 Pictures presentation of a Scott Free/Nick Wechsler/Chockstone Pictures production, made in association with TSG Entertainment, Ingenious Media. Produced by Ridley Scott, Wechsler, Steve Schwartz, Paula Mae Schwartz. Executive producers, Cormac McCarthy, Mark Huffam, Michael Schaefer, Michael Costigan.

Crew

Directed by Ridley Scott. Screenplay, Cormac McCarthy. Camera (color, widescreen), Dariusz Wolski; editor, Pietro Scalia; music, Daniel Pemberton; music supervisor, Pietro Scalia; production designer, Arthur Max; supervising art director, Marc Homes; art directors, Ben Munro, Alex Cameron; set decorator, Sonja Klaus; costume designer, Janty Yates; sound (Dolby Stereo/Datasat), Simon Hayes; supervising sound editor/sound designer, Oliver Tarney; re-recording mixers, Chris Burdon, Doug Cooper; senior visual effects supervisor, Richard Stammers; visual effects supervisor, Charley Henley; visual effects producer, Philip Greenlow; visual effects, MPC; stunt coordinator, Rob Inch; line producer, Mary Richards; associate producer, Teresa Kelly; assistant director, Max Keene; casting, Nina Gold, Avy Kaufman.

With

Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Bruno Ganz, Rosie Perez, Sam Spruell, Toby Kebbell, Edgar Ramirez, Ruben Blades, Natalie Dormer, Goran Visnjic, John Leguizamo. (English, Spanish dialogue)

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  1. Whitney says:

    A+ on the jaw-dropping violence.
    C on the storyline.
    D on the “what the hell does this have to do with anything” scenes. Including what happens to dead bodies in septic containers stays in septic containers?

    Not exactly easy-to-follow. The story line was over done, all over the place and should have had more scripted dialogue. Another odd Traffic Movie, too many unnecessary stories combined into one major story. The Diaz car-sexing weird underlining women powerment message thing was too much and also uncomfortable, lol. Also The grand poetic Big Cartel whom preaches on and on about justice, fairness and life to the Counselor, bull-shitingly saying to except his fluke fate. That scene pissed me off! Oh god and that brutal strangle decapitating Pitt scene… Good lord. Its a so-so thriller that had me leaving feeling sad and confusingly morbid.

  2. Nathan Jongewaard says:

    Not sure what movie this guy saw, but I’d count him wrong about everything. The Counselor is a gut punch of a thriller, brilliantly written and directed, vastly superior to the typical Hollywood BS in every conceivable way. That this critic’s response is typical of the film’s reception is the real head-scratcher.

    • gassa says:

      The Councelor is definately a ‘D’ for me; disgusting, dispicable, depraved, depressing.

      I was most disapointed that the potentially great cast would give this film content any oxygen. Just one more step down into desensitising the movie going public to violence, cruelty and depravity, Why?

      Am I the only one who wants to feel good, positively influenced and entertained when I leave the theater.

      The scene when the big drug boss waxes all philisophical about HIS ‘Justice’ & justification is a joke. This type of human lowlife only thinks about greed in every form & doesn’t care who they hurt or destroy to get their pleasures.

      Im sure there are many good people from Mexico & Sth America.

      I recommend you don’t go & support the studio & actors that produced this rubbish.

  3. Nils Ohlanders says:

    This makes me so angry! “audiences who would’ve happily settled for a more conventional genre movie” Well, I wouldn’t have. Why would I want to see a normal, boring movie. I held my breath all the way through this brilliantly constructed, directed and played movie. Magical imagery, wit and depth!

  4. T. Dorman says:

    Does anyone who reads McCarthy really feel that Chigurh is more iconic than The Judge from Blood Meridian? Because I’m pretty sure the answer is no.

  5. Dan says:

    Are you saying the film sucked like a Plecostomus?

  6. David Bankston says:

    Mr. Debruge, you should refrain from commenting on that which is over your head.

  7. G. Jardoness says:

    1987 called, it wants its Pepsi Commercial back.

    The most praise-worthy thing to say about this is its 25 million dollar budget… along with the timely reminder to change my windshield wiper-blades.

    Frankly, I’d rather see a ‘relevant’ Ridley Scott, rather than a once-visionary ‘legendary’ director Ridley Scott, who’s seeming groping to reclaim some voice and identity, as he’s brought nothing to the myriad of genres and styles he’s dabbled in, in his attempt to be ‘prolific’, having obviously lost the confidence to be masterful, committed, and unique.

    And the next time he pats himself on the back about having two films in the National Film Registry, please tell him, so is ‘The Muppet Movie’ and ‘The Nutty Professor’.

  8. Nousche says:

    The casting, the script, the dialogs and the director are enough reasons to see this. It’s very intriguing and captivating with great performances from all. The negative was the quick ending but you still leave the theatre impressed. For those who seek an atypical movie, without predictable endings or actions, give it a chance. You will love!

  9. Christopher Ferguson says:

    “The script is nearly all dialogue, including several eloquent spoken passages toward the end, but it’s a lousy story, ineptly constructed and rendered far too difficult to follow. The film doesn’t end so much as stop”. Exactly its terrible. Honestly after Ridley cut this film and looked at it didn’t he think it was a dog. How can an acclaimed director in Hollywood turn out this terrible directed jigsaw puzzle.

  10. Bronco Pitt says:

    Is Bradley Mikael Douglas Pitt in this film? It looks good to me! Tell Brad, give me a nice 1911 .45 acp so I can shoot Ground Hogs on my property! Tell him Uncle Bronco Pitt doesn’t drive a FORD, but would love to borrow his Bentley! And.. I’d like to meet his friend the Mac Damon, and Matthew Broderick that Ferris Wheel kid/man! This “The Counselor” looks mighty mean! But it doesn’t have EMMA STONE in it!

  11. immerstahl says:

    Hmm… so it’s pretty Shakespearean and not tied up in a bow… it sounds like a film for adults–full of abstraction and philosophy, where everything isn’t spelled out. Look, this is Cormac McCarthy we’re talking about, right? Of course the lead role has no name–that’s a tried and true Western trope, The Man With No Name. Symbolism that the film is a Western underneath it all. That’s precisely why it intrigues me.

  12. LOL says:

    Ridley Scott’s brother, Tony, committed suicide while the director was making this movie. I am convinced such a tragic ordeal no doubt affected his vision and directorial thought-processes, which materialised in an uneven picture.

    This may actually be a serious cult movie to be remembered. Let’s cut Ridley some slack and be nice to him.

  13. The Kingslayer says:

    Ridley Scott just doesn’t have it anymore.

  14. Freddy with a d says:

    Immature miscreant posts abound. Go spend your cash and enjoy the garbage you’ve been warned about. Better choices remain.

  15. “Cormac McCarthy’s first original script is nearly all dialogue, but it’s a lousy story, ineptly constructed and rendered far too difficult to follow.”

    I read the script and it’s brilliant. There is a great deal of dialogue but the dialogue is incredibly thoughtful and lyrical. If you’re an unthinking person I can see you how you’d find it unnecessarily obtuse but the more intelligent viewers will be saying thank goodness for a film that doesn’t condescend and treat them like a child. I’m not sure why you’d think the story lousy given the fact it’s not only entirely realistic (people illegally getting involved with drugs for profit is not much of a stretch) but it’s current and based on what is a very unfortunate and dangerous situation across our own border.

    McCarthy’s works are some of the most thoughtfully constructed works of our age and this work is no different. The script I read was a masterwork but until the film is released for general viewing I can’t fairly weigh in on how it was cut and thus its final construction. But that you’d deduce McCarthy doesn’t understand how suspense and drama work onscreen because he didn’t follow convention is ridiculously presumptuous. For not treating “audiences who would’ve happily settled for a more conventional genre movie” like a bunch of elementary unthinking escapists he should be applauded. In my opinion it’s a welcome change that people watching a movie might have to actually – heaven forbid – think a little.

    • I’m encouraged by your optimism, Rick. You describe precisely the hopes I had going in to the film. But alas, the execution is almost in total opposition to the script (a moral play directed to look like a car commercial). Be sure to circle back after you’ve seen it and let me know if I sufficiently lowered your expectations to find something of merit in this morass.

  16. It was well made and acted with commitment.

  17. Jill says:

    I’m still going to see it. I’d rather see an ambitious film that is flawed, rather than one that aims for mediocrity and succeeds–as all too many do.

  18. Doris Harper says:

    This review is so unflatering and pompous just one man’s point of view, it has some very talented actors and actresses in it. That alone counts for something it means they have invested in this script. The mere fact you cut it down so much it inticed me to go and see it.

    • Johnnie says:

      Um, yes, this review is “just one man’s point of view,” It’s the point of view of the critic.
      And you know what, your opinion is one woman’s point of view: yours.
      The writer never said he was speaking for everyone.
      And by the way, how come when you hate a movie and tell all your friends you hated a movie, that’s okay.
      But when a professional writer says he hated a movie, he’s “pompous”?
      Can you answer that for me?

  19. kenmandu says:

    No Country was way over-rated and the other two were flops… this review is no surprise.

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