‘The Counselor’ Review
Everyone is going to hate 'The Counselor.'
Ridley Scott's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's original screenplay starring Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, et. al. is one frustrating movie. At its very best – if you buckle down and really work to piece together the nearly inscrutable plot – you aren't going to come away with much. “Crime doesn't pay,” is the gist of it.
Michael Fassbender plays a lawyer (called only “Counselor”) who seems like a nice enough chap. He's certainly nice to his fiancee, Penelope Cruz, and they clearly love one another, and that's nice. He even goes all the way to Amsterdam to buy her a perfect engagement ring. But now his “back's against the wall” financially. Because he spent too much on the ring? Because of shady deals? Or does he simply see the lavish lifestyle of one of his clients, Javier Bardem, who runs nightclubs and runs drugs, and think, “Yeah, I want some of that, too?” We don't know, but we do know that the instant he buys himself into the drug trafficking biz he is doomed. His fate is sealed up and there's nothing he can do but go through the motions of a cliché drug movie.
We know this because we are told – everyone tells him, over and over, that he will be doomed. You've heard of Chekhov's Gun? This is a whole movie of that. And since we know he is not an idiot (he can have a bit of a silver tongue when he needs it; he's no wide-eyed naif), we have to assume some of it has sunk in. But, like a gambler losing his fortune while fully aware of the stacked odds, he jumps in and meets his destiny. This is bleak, fatalistic stuff, gruesome to watch and, since it is mostly dialogue, hard to listen to.
The dialogue is marvelous, however. McCarthy, author of 'The Road' and 'No Country For Old Men,' has presented us with a stack of “scene work” that will keep acting classes thrumming for years. To traditional moviegoers, however, it might be infuriating. Take, for example, Bruno Ganz appearing at the beginning, as the Dutch diamond dealer. He speaks portentously, and laden with metaphor, about the types of stones and gradings. There are close-ups on prisms of light, and it obviously has great impact to the characters, and then none of this is ever discussed again.
One could be forgiven for asking, “What the hell was that all about?” but I think there's far more to be gained to buy-in, take McCarthy and Scott at face value and work to find the obscured significance. Even in a drug dealer movie where people are cutting each other's heads off.
My natural reaction any time big stars and a name director get together and “swing for the fences” is to find a way to like that movie, to give it a slap on the tush and say “good for you.” But 'The Counselor' is totally disinterested in my approbation. It goes out of its way to make itself difficult; to obscure the connective tissue between its characters and its story beats. It doesn't do it by keeping the dialogue reserved or by hitting you with images and sounds you need to piece together yourself. (It's not 'Upstream Color.') In fact, this movie can't stop talking. It remains difficult by defiantly not giving a s---.
'The Counselor' is an opportunity for good and great actors to sink their teeth into rich, stagey chunks of discourse and riff on THEMES like violence, mortality, powerlessness and fate. It's similar to last year's 'Killing Them Softly,' another movie with Brad Pitt that everybody hated, but was a lot easier to follow, and had plenty more visual panache. 'The Counselor,' however, has humongous concrete blocks of, "What the hell did he just say?” dialogue.
In a weird way, 'The Counselor' is something of a filmed play. All but a small handful of the sequences are tableaux – densely decorated interiors gorgeously lit and framed, a backdrop in the true sense of the word for elaborately costumed and coiffed actors to perform.
For a movie I'm convinced everyone will hate, there are some selling points. Cameron Diaz self-identifies as a cheetah, to the point of having spots. ('Star Trek' cosplay as a Trill? A boy can dream.) Also, she makes love to a car (yes, you read that right) in a way that makes Tawny Kitaen look tame by comparison. There's also a pretty spectacular shoot-out. It's not like the one from 'Heat,' but it's pretty damn good.
Then there's Ruben Blades, the Mexican drug cartel equivalent to the Chief Rabbi in 'A Serious Man.' His speech at the end of the film is one of the most remarkable I've seen in a movie this year. There is, however, this problem: no one will go see this movie, and over half of the people who do will have tuned out by the time he comes on screen. It's a shame, because what he has to say is actually rather profound. What it had to do with the plot, I have absolutely no idea.
‘The Counselor’ opens in theaters on October 25.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.