The Counselor Review: All Dressed Up With Nowhere To Go

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The Counselor boasts some major talent both in front of and behind the camera, but all of that amounts to nothing in this bombastic dud of a thriller.

There’s a brief scene in The Counselor where Michael Fassbender’s naive, but crooked lawyer finds himself alone in a seedy Mexican bar.  The bar’s owner tells him that the streets outside are dangerous and he will likely be killed.  This leads to a conversation about whether or not death is meaningless.  The bar owner aptly responds, “All of my family is dead.  I am the one who is meaningless.”  This statement carries a lot of weight, and it’s the sort of rumination that’s supposed to make the audience contemplate the film’s larger themes. It’s just too bad that this scene is preceded by over an hour’s worth of utter nonsense.

The film was written by celebrated author Cormac McCarthy, in his first attempt at screenwriting, and his literary stamp is all over it.  Nearly every scene features an overly verbose conversation between two characters, the dialogue gushing with philosophical musings on death, greed, and the evils of man.  On paper, I’m sure this looked wildly intelligent, but visually it translates into a rambling, puzzling mess that distracts from a supreme lack of plotting or character development.

From what I could gather, the story revolves around a lawyer, simply known as Counselor, who decides get involved with the drug trafficking business on the border between Texas and Mexico.  His reasons for doing so are unclear, but he deals with a variety of seemingly colorful characters who end up being nothing more than one-note representations of the film’s bleak concept of humanity. Javier Bardem, looking like he bathed in Ed Hardy catalogues, stars as the excessive drug distributor Reiner.  Brad Pitt plays Westray, a middleman who only speaks in riddles.  Penélope Cruz shows up as Counselor’s demure fiancé Laura. She’s the only character we really feel anything for, and yet Laura is used as more of a tool than an actual person.

The most interesting role could have gone to Cameron Diaz’s scheming, over-sexed Malkina, but that too falls flat.  As Reiner’s current lover, Malkina slowly assumes control of the operation and orchestrates her own devious plan.  Her part toes the line between a femme fatale and a misogynistic caricature.  One one hand, she proves she can be just as bad as the boys.  On the other, she proves Reiner’s initial assertion that smart women are crazy and dangerous.

Of course, all of this interesting potential is undone by the fact that her absurd actions don’t seem to have any motivation behind them.  In a way, Diaz was greatly miscast as Malkina.  That’s not to say that the actress doesn’t try her best–she certainly seems up to the challenge, especially during a disturbing scene involving the windshield of a Ferrari–it’s just that her role is so cartoonish that it would be better suited to the likes of Jessica Rabbit than an actual human being.

Previous adaptations of McCarthy’s work–The RoadNo Country for Old Men–have succeeded because his brilliant ideas were put to naturalistic dialogue and subtle cinematic direction.  Here, director Ridley Scott only adds to the confusion by showering every scene with unnecessary visual opulence.  Any carnal passion that the film might have had is ruined by the fact that the sex scenes are more cringe-inducing than erotic.  There are a few action-heavy setpieces that are executed well enough, but they’re nothing we haven’t seen before, and nothing we don’t see coming from miles away.  Oh hey, look! Malkina likes to watch her two pet cheetahs hunt for prey, and she also has a garish cheetah-print tattoo on her back– what symbolism!    Truly, it’s a shame to see the director of the hauntingly quiet Alien cavort through this film with all the finesse of a bull in a china shop.

If you were left scratching your head in the theater as the credits rolled, I assure you that you’re not alone. It’s a wonder how quickly this film derails itself.  That’s probably the worst thing about The Counselor.  With such strong hands behind the wheel and a veritable cast of superstars, it could have been something great. Perhaps if it were a little less talkative, and had more of a cohesive plot, it would be a prime suspense thriller. Instead we’re left to baffle at how a film with such promise went so awry.  Grade: D


By Mike Papirmeister

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