1 and 1/2 out of 4 stars
“The Counselor” is proof positive that even a great director and a stellar cast can’t overcome a poorly written script. It also confirms what studio chiefs and producers have been saying for close to a century: great novelists make for lousy screenwriters.
The man who wrote “The Counselor” is Cormac McCarthy whose brittle, unforgiving, novels have been made into six films (including “All the Pretty Horses, “The Road” and the multi-Oscar-winner “No Country for Old Men”). This isn’t the first time McCarthy has penned a screenplay but it is the first that he’s created directly for the screen. As with almost everything else he’s written, it is largely shapeless, top-heavy with style and monumentally depressing.
The opening scene looks as if it is the beginning of soft-core porn flick posing as a romantic drama. The nameless title character (Michael Fassbender) and his girlfriend Laura (Penelope Cruz) are clearly deep in love and share molten carnal desires. It’s erotic without being seedy or base, lasts about three minutes and marks the high point of the movie.
It’s never made clear what facet of the law is the Counselor’s specialty, which is the first of many gaping holes in the plot. We know has at least one court-appointed client, which would likely mean he’s a public defender, but his opulent lifestyle would negate that theory. Given his easy-going personality and relative naïveté regarding organized crime, its unlikely any of his clients are affiliated with the mob and his lack of blood lust rules him out as a divorce attorney or ambulance-chaser. Maybe he’s a tax, real estate or intellectual property specialist. Whatever.
Again, for reasons left out, the Counselor wants to be part of a group of investors in a one-off drug deal that could net the three parties involved upwards of $20 million. Partner one is Reiner (Javier Bardem), a club owner with bad hair, questionable fashion sense and a penchant for bloody marys. The third investor is Westray (Brad Pitt), a heavy-drinking womanizer who dresses all in white and wears a cowboy hat over his greasy hair. Both Reiner and Westray offer blunt counsel to the neophyte Counselor by telling him he’s getting into something with many downsides and once he’s in there’s no getting out. Blinded by greed and the thrill of it all, the Counselor forges ahead whole hog.
Rounding out the principal cast while more or less owning the movie is Cameron Diaz, arguably the least talented performer in the ensemble going in. Diaz plays Malkina, a bisexual and former stripper who is currently sleeping with Reiner. She lost her parents at age 3 and has absolutely no regard for human life. Heavily tattooed and made-up, adorned with gaudy jewelry and a severe coif, Malkina also has two pet cheetahs which she regularly lets loose on the plains to chase jackrabbits. When told by another character that she’s cold, she replies that truth has no temperature. Loathsome has she is, you have to admire Malkina’s steely-eyed focus, unrelenting drive and consistency. It would be great to see her character in another movie as the lead.
Taking place in southern Texas, northern Mexico (and one scene in Holland), the locations are ideal for director Ridley Scott, who is a genius at matching visuals with mood. Everything is open and airy and the beauty of the desert serves as a gorgeous backdrop. Unlike his late brother Tony (who died during filming), Scott is patient and favors long shots over manic camera work and rat-a-tat editing but isn’t afraid to use costumes and sets as narrative subterfuge in order to divert our attention from the wanting story.
As drug-deal-gone-wrong thrillers go, “The Counselor” offers little to nothing special plotwise but looks good doing it and the handful of methods employed in the disposing of some of the characters are original and always gruesome. The filmmakers’ biggest collective sin is leaving the fate of one of the principals opened-ended for no apparent reason, but is fitting with the rest of the story’s haphazard and nonsensical execution.
Presented in English and occasional Spanish without English subtitles. (Fox)