It’s nothing new to cineasts: a great creative team, quality cast and a compelling premise that turns into cinematic mush. Back in 2013, Ridley Scott teamed up with novelist Cormac McCarthy to deliver a modern morality tale about sex, drugs and consequence. The story centred on Michael Fassbender as a lawyer who has it all (when you have Penelope Cruz, you’ve pretty much-hit perfection), as he decides to try his hand at the drugs trade with some dire consequences.
From all the marketing, it sounded a little like Pulp Fiction meets No Country for Old Men, which sounds pretty sweet. But then, it was released and instead, turned out to be more a slow, dingy morality tale about the nature of choice and consequence, filled with high-brow parables. In fact, for all of its pomp, it’s very anti-Hollywood in its approach, ideas and ending, and promptly got an anti-enthusiastic reception.
But now that time and hype have passed, and Scott’s regained favour with The Martian last year, I feel it’s time to go back and take another look at The Counselor. Was it a victim of the internet’s notoriously unforgiving reaction to unmet expectations, or was it really just a load of old cobblers?
First, let’s discuss the definite positives:
Our central quintet are splendid, with Fassbender and Cruz’ naive optimism and charisma a nice contrast to the distant, more indulgent mentality that Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem and Cameron Diaz share as part of the drugs outfit. In fact, Bardem and Diaz serve as an antithesis to our main couple, very much relishing in their debauchery, and having a ball while doing so. Furthermore, on the technical front, the much undervalued Dariusz Wolski delivers cinematography that is nothing short of stunning, capturing the vibrant sun-baked landscapes of Mexico, mirroring the uncontrolled high life of these people, while contrasting with the clinical greys of everywhere else, that have not embraced this unadulterated indulgence. Musically, video games veteran Daniel Pemberton provides a semi-surreal score, merging the traditional Latin romanticism ala James Horner’s Zorro scores, with a grungier, more ruthless sound akin to Ennio Morricone’s western scores with the use of electric guitars.
Plus, the much-loathed screenplay actually has some strong points in its favour: throughout, the script offers us numerous parallels between the world and our characters, like Diaz owning pet cheetahs to mirror her own untamed nature, in addition to also reflecting her slightly predatory nature, as well as the diamond Fassbender buys and what it says about life’s value, and indeed, the running thread of deceptive appearances and their fruit. If there’s one thing I can’t deny McCarthy, it is his attention to thematic detail. Also, contrary to popular claims, the dialogue isn’t just endless soliloquies (save for one major offender, but I’ll discuss that later), and are told more as anecdotes that are relevant to the situation, often as little warnings to the Counselor. Examples include Pitt and Bardem talking about Cartel killing methods when talking over the Counselor’s drug deal and what’s he getting himself into, or Diaz using her cheetahs to comment on the violent and animal nature of humans to another colleague at the end who also faces a similar choice to the Counselor. While lines like ‘truth has no temperature’ may not be the most natural, the people who say it are not the grimy Cartel thugs, but people who have money and a sense of mock-sophistication, as well as probably on something given their trade, so it’s not entirely unjustified or inexplicable to have them talk like this.
However, that higher aspiration has its price:
McCarthy may be great on themes and drawing parallels, but his actual plotting abilities leave something to be desired. The narrative is clunky and lacking in what ought to be the basics: who are these ‘associates’ that Bardem and Pitt work for? What is their position relative to them? How many cartels are there, at least, in direct relevance to our story? How much power does Diaz wield? Why is a word I found myself using a fair bit during my viewings.
Let me demonstrate this bizarre logic that the script operates on (thar be spoilers, matey):
Diaz has her goons kill this biker who has the keys to a drug truck. Then, when her guys are driving along, another cartel duo comes in and steals it. Okay, so why isn’t she concerned that her own stolen truck was taken by what seems to be another cartel when she seems set on accumulating the assets of others across the second half? Or how about, also in the second half, The Counselor’s world starts to unravel, and Cruz gets snatched. There’s a scene not long after where Diaz is talking to someone on the phone, but we don’t hear the person on the other end. Who is she speaking to? The scene right before has Fassbender appealing to this lawyer/crime boss to get his girl back, so is she talking to him? Was this part of her plan, and how does it benefit her? If not, who is it then? The other cartel? Wouldn’t that then make her plan overly complex given what I just mentioned? Because McCarthy doesn’t define the inter-character dynamics well, good luck figuring out who really does what.
And then comes the monologue that I guarantee really set off critics:
So the lawyer says he can’t help Fassbender. So far, sad scene, but then comes one of the most overwritten, overlong and bloated monologues ever put to screen. It interminable, babbling on for several minutes as the lawyer rambles about poets and choices and ‘the world you live in’ and… oh for love of-get on with it! There is no subtlety, and as if that’s not enough, the lawyer repeats the whole ‘consequences’ bit several times, like a CD on loop for at least five minutes.
So, what is the end result?
An overly ambiguous story that definitely feels like it would be more suited to the printed medium, slow pacing, one of the most overt bits of ‘theme-dumping’ ever and, of course, Diaz’ car-fudging. The Counselor is a film that isn’t awful for lack of trying, but it screams of inexperience and overconfidence. It has virtues, but its core narrative is so clumsily handled that it leaves me sort of torn as to what to feel, but certainly not hatred. If you’re intrigued but have held off all this time, I advise rental unless you’re a die-hard completionist of Scott or McCarthy.
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