The Counselor Review
by Daniel Rester
The Counselor announces the first produced original screenplay by famed novelist Cormac McCarthy (writer of the book No Country for Old Men (2005)), and it is helmed by Ridley Scott and features a big-name cast. With so many talented folks working on the project, there were some large expectations. Many critics who have done reviews so far do not believe the film has lived up to such hype, denouncing the piece as boring, slow, ugly, and convoluted. While it is such things at times, I don’t believe the film deserves the heap of major hate that it has been receiving.
We don’t seem to start at the beginning of a story with Counselor, but rather get dropped into the middle of a fractured one involving a nameless lawyer (Michael Fassbender). The man, known as “The Counselor” to everyone, is just starting to get his hands dirty by getting involved with drug trafficking on the Tex-Mex border. We know that he loves his naïve girlfriend Laura (a lovely Penelope Cruz) very much, and that the risks of the business are worth it for the payoff for him.
Counselor starts dealing with a drug kingpin named Reiner (Javier Bardem, who has yet another ridiculous hairdo) and his icy girlfriend, Malkina (Cameron Diaz). He is also introduced to Westray (Brad Pitt, working with Scott for the first time since Thelma & Louise (1991)), a slick and charismatic middleman who helps set up the deals involving Reiner and the others. Counselor is warned by Westray and Reiner of the possible things that could go wrong, and of course such terrible things eventually come to fruition.
McCarthy isn’t as concerned with telling us a straightforward story about the drug underworld so much as he is in presenting a seemingly jumbled collection of scenes strapped with thick dialogue. Such fragmented storytelling and heavy dialogue, along with the muddled character spines, have caused many to complain about the narrative’s form – and purpose. Not much is really known about our lead character, and everyone around him seems to have their own mysterious agendas. This murkiness is then combined with scenes that go right off of the main path and straight into a “strange and needless zone.”
While I get why such storytelling methods would piss off some viewers, there are still enough moments to fill in the gaps if one really pays attention – perhaps making the thing more rewarding than some think it is. Trimming in some places and adding in details in others should definitely have been considered for McCarthy’s screenplay, yet the author keeps things interesting with his novelistic approaches to individual scenes. The dialogue is a bit much at times, but at others it is rich and even beautiful. He also allows some food for thought on such subjects as greed, grief, the manipulation of women, the weakness of men, and others. So, the script is a bit of a mess, but there are still some things to admire about it.
It also doesn’t hurt that Scott is helming McCarthy’s work. The director fails to add more logic and “easy ways out” to the writing in his presentation, but he does manage to build a cold atmosphere with his meticulous touches. He and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski really manage to make a few scenes pop off of the screen here, especially an unforgettable (and very weird) one involving Malkina and a car and another involving a bloody highway shootout. The smooth camera movements and use of sunbaked and/or muted colors adds to the aesthetic quality of the picture; Scott also doesn’t go too dramatic on lighting here, which he has been known to do in the past.
The cast is fairly strong as well, though no particular person really shines. Fassbender is surprisingly dull at times, but he does kick things into high gear when it comes to some emotionally charged scenes. Bardem is fun and quirky as Reiner, and Pitt has the smooth-talking down as Westray. Only Diaz seems a bit out of place, though she tries and brings a certain chilliness/sexiness to the table some of the time.
The acting is really above the character quality here. With a weaker cast, some of the supporting players may have just been lost in McCarthy’s words – which some will say they are. Yet the magnetism possessed by such people as Pitt and Bardem helps draw attention, as such actors are always watchable.
Counselor isn’t great, but it also isn’t the colossal failure that some say it is. The plot and characters are hard to get behind and understand, and the film is slow and long. However, the craftsmanship by Scott, the solid acting, and the occasionally fascinating dialogue help keep it afloat. This is bound to be one of the more misunderstood and underrated films of the year, though some disappointing blood admittedly does flow through it. Still, I hope McCarthy tries his hand at screenwriting again.
Rating: 3 out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: B+)