Assistant ANDY Editor
Director: Ridley Scott
I first grew concerned on Wednesday. The Counselor was only a couple days from wide release and not a single professional review had surfaced online.
Studios regularly forgo critics’ screenings or embargo reviews for their least-promising films in order to prevent bad word of mouth. Yet, this hush-hush treatment did not seem apt for a project with so much high-profile talent on both sides of the camera.
How bad could any film directed by Ridley Scott, written by Cormac McCarthy, and starring Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Pénelope Cruz, and Cameron Diaz possibly be?
To quote Pitt’s character, “I’d say pretty bad. And then multiply it by 10.” The studio was probably right to try and cover up this plodding, suspenseless story about a botched drug deal that threatens an unnamed lawyer (Fassbender) and his criminal associates, played by Bardem and Pitt. Cruz has little more than a cameo role as the counselor’s guileless wife. Meanwhile, Diaz plays a villainess who does things to a sports car that give new meaning to the word “autoerotic.”
If a Cormac McCarthy-derived crime thriller set in the American southwest and starring Javier Bardem on a bad hair day seems familiar, it should. These were also ingredients of No Country for Old Men (2007), the Coen Brothers’ riveting adaptation of the McCarthy novel of the same name.
Unfortunately for The Counselor, comparisons to that Best Picture-winner are both unavoidable and unflattering.
The dialogue in No Country for Old Men often had a philosophical bent, but McCarthy’s script for The Counselor takes this literary language to the extreme. Profundities like “I believe truth has no temperature” are swapped over cocktails. Similar to the desert vistas onscreen, such dialogue is grand, but ultimately empty.
Fassbender’s counselor is also a disappointing substitute for Llewellyn Moss, the ordinary Texan in No Country for Old Men who became similarly mixed-up with drugs and deviants. While Moss was resourceful and tenacious, the counselor is much less active, and consequently less compelling.
Early in the film, Fassbender’s character is warned that he will “eventually come to moral decisions that will take [him] completely by surprise.” Yet, this premonition goes unfulfilled. After agreeing to the initial ill-fated drug deal, Fassbender’s character takes little – if any – decisive action. For a counselor, he sure spends a lot of the movie desperately calling others for advice.
Perhaps the counselor’s frustrating passivity is some kind of comment on the helplessness of mankind in the face of implacable evil. Other parts of the film seem to speak to this same theme. A tanker full of drugs rumbles north throughout the movie, for example, while drug cartels use a weapon that slowly constricts an unbreakable wire loop. Yet, these ideas and images don’t come together in an intelligible way.
The film’s most resonant moments occur near its end, when violence spills into the posh streets of London. As business-suited onlookers watch the blood spray, Scott provocatively juxtaposes sophistication and brutality. The shock and surprise of the London crowd also makes for an interesting counterpoint to earlier scenes in Ciudad Juárez, where the counselor wanders into a demonstration against rampant killings.
Nevertheless, The Counselor demonstrates Ridley Scott’s frustrating inconsistency as a filmmaker. He secured his reputation with the science-fiction landmarks Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982) and he has helmed several other large-scale blockbusters since. Indeed, Scott is so successful that he seemingly has his pick of actors and projects. Yet, his films frequently feel like less than the sum of their promising parts. Like The Counselor, Scott’s previous two canadian pharm offerings, Robin Hood (2010) and Prometheus (2012), also used megawatt stars and noteworthy source material to mostly middling effect.
The plot of The Counselor seems to suggest that no matter how thoroughly one may plan, catastrophe can still catch up with a person once certain mistakes are made. The movie itself illustrates the same principle. Despite the best intentions of all the talented people in the credits, I have to diagnose The Counselor a mess.