Mexico. Decadence. Wild parties. A seedy, treacherous underworld. Really, really kinky sex. Michael Fassbender in some very sharp suits. Bet you’re thinking ‘Shut up and take my money’, right? My review of The Counselor after the jump.
Michael Fassbender plays a lawyer referred to in the film only as ‘the counselor’, who, through greed, is drawn into a drug deal involving one of his clients, Reiner (Javier Bardem) and Westray (Brad Pitt), a shady middleman. Things are further complicated when one of the counselor’s clients, the incarcerated Ruth (Rosie Perez), approaches him with a personal request. These events expose him to a series of deadly consequences he couldn’t have imagined, which threaten to engulf not only him, but also his new fiancée, Laura (Penelope Cruz) and Reiner’s wife, Malkina (Cameron Diaz), who may have an agenda all of her own. As the bodies start piling up, the counselor comes to realize the true price of entangling himself in the criminal activities of his clients.
Imagine you decide to build your perfect home. You recruit a renowned architect to draw up the plans, then you hire a talented and skilled foreman to supervise the building and damn it, you even splash out on some spiffy, high-quality bricks and mortar. Then, on the day of the grand unveiling, you show up to the site to find that your dream house consists of three uneven walls, a roof made of straw and a crooked door with a dick and balls sprayed onto it with graffiti. That pretty much sums up my experience of viewing The Counselor. The movie has one hell of a pedigree, given that it boasts a script by the renowned Cormac McCarthy (author of the searing, sparsely beautiful novel No Country For Old Men), direction by the talented and skilled Ridley Scott (Alien, Gladiator) and a veritable dream team of high-quality actors. So what could possibly have gone wrong?
The major letdown of The Counselor is the screenplay by McCarthy which contains none of the lyricism and narrative tension of his past work. McCarthy had often managed to convey a kind of horrific beauty in his descriptions of some pretty brutal and uncompromising acts. Most of all, his stories often seem to be making some kind of comment or point on the human condition and the duelling ugliness and beauty inherent in protagonists and antagonists alike. The Counselor replaces all of that with a meandering pace, mostly unsympathetic characters and an unnecessarily bleak, pointless ending with a reveal that is more likely to lead to audience head scratching than anything approaching appreciation. Most of all, there is no real payoff, at least not one which justifies all the characters acting nebulous for the sake of it. Occasionally, we do get flashes of the McCarthy we know and love, such as a joke about Jesus and Mexico that had me laughing more than I should have.
As usual with the lesser works of Ridley Scott (and I think this is one of the only Scott movies I actively dislike), it’s the script that lets him down (stand up, Prometheus, you gorgeous, yet bone-headed beauty, you!). The Counselor is a competently (though unremarkably) shot picture with an all-too-brief roadside shoot-out being a highlight. You do get the sense that Scott is killing time until something he’s more interested in pops up. That said, the bleak, sun scorched vistas of the Mexican-American border and the trappings of the wealthy and decadent characters that populate the film still manage to raise some interest visually. Still, it doesn’t really feel like a Scott movie, given that it lacks his unique voice and technical virtuosity.
Perhaps the biggest strength of The Counselor is the talented cast which for the most part brings their A-game to proceedings. Michael Fassbender has a knack for stealing the show in movies like Prometheus and X-Men: First Class among many others. Here, he’s as suave as you would expect and definitely manages to bring out a degree of pathos when things start going to hell. But since we don’t have any real insight into his character or why he does the things that he does, all this effort ends up wasted. Penelope Cruz’s performance as his fiancée, Laura, evokes a sort of innocent sexuality and she has at least one or two scenes in which she makes us believe, if only for a few moments, that this movie actually has some heart. Hers is a tragically underused performance. Also worth a mention is Javier Bardem as the genial Reiner, one of the counselor’s clients. In the movie’s strangest, most sexually graphic and bat-shit crazy sequence, he provides a hilariously non-plussed narration of a certain…action performed by Malkina (Cameron Diaz), which we see in flashbacks. I have a feeling people will be talking about this scene for a while, and I’m still trying to figure out if that’s a good thing.
The Counselor is a frustrating experience. Seldom have I seen a film that recruits all the right people and yet still end up as something way, way less than the sum of its talented parts. Shoddy characterisations and a screenplay that thinks its smarter than it really is make this definitely one to miss. Shame.
By Johnson Hii
Director: Ridley Scott
Writer(s): Cormac McCarthy
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt
Runtime: 117 minutes
Release date(s): USA: October 25 2013; Australia & New Zealand: November 7 2013