“The Counselor” is a movie I’ve been pumped up for since we first heard that Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy delivered a screenplay instead of the new novel that his agents and publishers expected. Add director Ridley Scott (“Alien”) to the equation, and an insane cast of top tier, A-list celebrities, and you start to understand the excitement. Weirdly, there’s been almost no buzz leading up to the release. It didn’t play at any of the recent big name festivals, press screenings were all late so enough that no one has been talking about it, and why the hell does Cameron Diaz have a cheetah in all the trailers? Unfortunately, the movie falls way, way short of expectations. Roughly one-third is the precise movie I hoped for, while the rest is a complete and total disappointment.
McCarthy may be my favorite living writer. While there is certainly surface action as he puts his tough, rugged characters through their paces, his lush prose largely focuses on the internal and the unsaid. Reading a book like “Blood Meridian” or “The Crossing,” you can’t help but think that his works are damn near unfilmable. The Coen Brother’s pulled the transition off with “No Country for Old Men” because they were able to translate that inner world, to communicate it visually without having to state it outright. The inability to replicate this feat is the biggest reason “The Counselor” fails.
There is virtually no subtly in the script. In his books, the dialogue between McCarthy’s grim personalities is sparse, and every exchange bears an immense subtextual weight. In “The Counselor,” however, the vast majority of the conversations are stilted and obvious. There is no need to read between the lines, because everything is spelled out right in front of you in the most blatant terms. Some of the back and forths between MichaelFassbender’s titular Counselor, Reiner (Javier Bardem), and the middleman Westray (Brad Pitt) do what you hope, delivering an ominous load and leaving just as much hanging unsaid as is verbalized. But for every interaction like this you have a handful that are completely unrealistic.
McCarthy is fond of letting his characters dig themselves into a deep hole then watching them squirm as they attempt to climb out. On a superficial level, that’s story of “The Counselor.” Your protagonist has money troubles, gets into bed with some bad people—like Mexican drug cartel, fond of beheading people, bad—looking for a one-time score to keep himself afloat. Things go wrong, and everyone is left spinning in the wind, waiting for the axe to come through the door, as Reiner’s lady Malkina (Diaz) says. Here’s the problem. Counselor lives a lavish lifestyle. He drives a Bentley, has a nice pad, and slips a huge rock onto his new fiancé’s (Penelope Cruz) finger, but you never get the sense of desperation that would drive him to such extremes. The man is no an angel, but he’s not a bad guy, and he is obviously fighting out of his weight class. When $20 million worth of cartel cocaine goes missing, he’s in for a rough time.
You want your hero to take an active role in his life, to affect his situation in an overt way. Counselor, however, is entirely passive. He makes a few phone calls and hides out, but all he really does is sit and wait while the consequences of his decisions rain down on top of him. Maybe that’s the point “The Counselor” wants to make, that when you mess around with forces you don’t fully understand, you wind up powerless to help yourself, but it comes across like bad storytelling, and makes it difficult to sympathize with a character that does nothing at all.
Like the core character’s story, things just happen in “The Counselor.” The entire plot hinges on a coincidence. In true crime film fashion, Westray says that the people they’re working with don’t believe in coincidences. But at the same time the manufactured reality of the movie doesn’t accept this, you, the viewer, are expected to let this tenuous causal connection slide. If this truly is something other than a random occurrence, you never know. This is just one of many forced hiccups in the story.
One scene featured prominently in most of the trailers for “The Counselor” shows a man on a motorcycle zipping along, about to run into a thin wire strung across the road. The implication is that his head will shortly be removed from his body. It doesn’t spoil anything to say that is exactly what happens, but this moment is indicative of the logical leaps the film requires you to make. The purpose of this exercise is to retrieve an item from the biker, but this overly elaborate method of execution presents a ton of logistical problems. A fair amount of time has passed, so how do the assassins know the rider still has what they want? This trap is in place for at least enough time for it to change from day to night, and while we’re talking about a relatively isolated stretch of road, how can they be certain that no one else will pass along this way before their intended target? Flaws and assumptions like this pepper “The Counselor.” But you can imagine McCarthy had the idea for this awesome scene, and forced it into the script without regard for plausibility and reason. The most valuable piece of advice any writer has ever received is to kill your darlings, to cut out things that you love if they hinder the story, and you get the impression that bit of wisdom has been roundly ignored.
Diaz tries to present a sexy, calculated menace, but is flat and tedious—her pet cheetahs are a failed attempt to make her interesting. Cruz exists for no other reason than to look pretty, talk dirty for a second, and be in peril. Then Rosie Perez shows up for a minute. Fassbender charms his way through his the film, and you buy him as a suave, fast-talking lawyer, but it’s too easy. Sporting another silly hairdo, Bardem is cool and laid back, even as his greed derails his life. Listening to Pitt talk about provides most of the menace in the film. His nonchalant account of the possible horrors in store for them is where “The Counselor” most resembles McCarthy’s best work. The terror and foreboding makes Counselor weep, and you’re not far off. A couple of fun cameos round things out, but there’s little more to them than that.
“The Counselor” isn’t a terrible movie, but it is a terrifically wasted opportunity. Peppered throughout with promising moments, you’re always on the verge of greatness. You continually feel like right here, this very moment, is where things are going to change, where the film begins living up to its potential. Instead, however, you find yourself waiting for something that never comes.