The thing about Ridley Scott as a storyteller is when he fails, he still manages to craft scenes with alluring technique – we call it style over substance. I don’t believe there has ever been a true, absolute failure from our Mr. Scott, and I still don’t after having seen his newest film The Counselor. He partners up with screenwriter Cormac McCarthy (The Road, No Country for Old Men) to tell a gloomy tale about drug trafficking and deception that doesn’t lead to anywhere pleasant. However, what eventually becomes a missed opportunity from both Scott and McCarthy, shows through undeniably that some great work went into producing this thriller.
No time is wasted as the film opens with our unnamed protagonist the Counselor (Michael Fassbender) preforming cunnilingus on his girlfriend, Laura (Penelope Cruz). The question of love or lust immediately appears in the audience’s mind strictly because you have no sense of who these two are. You will quickly find out which it is as Counselor flies to Amsterdam to purchase the perfect wedding ring. It isn’t until after a couple of scenes setting up what will come, like a truck crossing the Juarez, Mexico border into Texas or introducing two more characters who will be intricate to the plot, that we finally learn what this Counselor guy is about. We find out that he is an attorney when he meets with his client, Reiner (Javier Bardem), and the discussion of a drug deal begins to unfold. Counselor agrees to join in for $20,000,000, but not before Reiner warns him of the possible consequences.
It is at this moment that the plot begins to disintegrate underneath our feet and we are left to grasp at whatever through line we can see. This drug deal is never fully developed for the audience to understand what exactly Counselor is supposed to be doing, other than break out a motorcycle speeder from prison because he represents his mother Ruth (Rosie Perez). Throughout it is clear that Reiner’s cheetah tattooed girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) is pulling the strings on everyone, but her motivation is muddled, giving no explanation to what exactly is happening. A great amount of the film is wonderful actors doing fantastic work with a script that doesn’t know what it wants to do.
While, yes, Cormac McCarthy wrote the screenplay for The Counselor people somehow have managed to forget that this is his first produced film screenplay; with the exception of the TV movie The Sunset Limited. Posters and trailers can endlessly promote that McCarthy wrote The Road and No Country for Old Men, and he did – in novel form. What this film shows above all else is that McCarthy needs restraint, there needed to be a co-writer on this to make sure there weren’t any loose ends and that a three-act structure could be visible. Instead we are left with a messy crime thriller that is unfortunately short on thrills; and characters who speak in Elizabethan/Shakespearean terms, making it a little harder to follow exactly what is going one between characters. Imagine having a conversation with a friend who talks in nothing but riddles, and you will understand the dialogue here.
With what thrills the film does have, Ridley Scott knows how to frame the scenes that need his attention most. Early on in the film Reiner sets up for the audience this machine called the bolito, in which a metallic wire is set around your neck like a noose, and this machine continues to pull the string tighter until you’re decapitated. It’s a neat idea, but the moment it is brought up, within the first 10 minutes of the picture, you are just waiting for it to make an appearance and eventually you feel it’s essentially what the film is all about. McCarthy came up with this device and wanted to tell a story using it, except he places philosophical messages throughout that never come to fruition. One scene involving Malkina having sex with Reiner’s yellow Ferrari is surprisingly well put together and humorous with what Bardem brings to it. It almost feels as if Ridley wasn’t on set for a lot of the principle photography, but when he was the film radiates with his style.
To say that there are too many characters is wrong for what is presented with The Counselor. You have four central personalities who are there to create the main focus of the film, and then plenty of supporting cast members who add enough to give it scope. Brad Pitt (who owes his career to Ridley Scott) dresses up as a cowboy for his character Westray. Every time Pitt is on camera he owns the scene, mostly acting to the side of Michael Fassbender, except outperforming him. It feels like Pitt should be there, in that world Ridley shoots, and that Fassbender is on the wrong set. The most underutilized actor in the whole film is Penelope Cruz who makes a couple of appearances, but nothing noteworthy. My favorite possible nod was with Dean Norris being the buyer of the drug deal, because we all know his affiliation with Breaking Bad.
For years it has been said that Ridley Scott’s best cuts are two from the initial release. All the quibbles I’ve had with the film can be an easy fix with 30 more minutes added to build more; and to be honest, it feels like there was just that shaved off because Fox didn’t want a two and a half hour film. A Ridley Scott director’s cut for The Counselor isn’t just wanted by me, but needed. Maybe the scenes cut out were worse than anything I’ve seen from the “as of now” complete film, but I have high hopes that a longer cut of this could push it up with those who didn’t enjoy it too much.
What is a mess isn’t a total loss depending on opinion; I liked The Counselor more than I was expecting, especially with it giving one of the most grisly death sequences of the year. There are definite moments to thoroughly enjoy and as an experiment, it’s easy to see what goes wrong. I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited for a director’s cut, just to see what this could have been. However, unfortunately this is quite the disappointment for Scott and McCarthy fans. It deserved more time.
The Good: Ridley Scott’s direction and visual flare, the performances, and it’s just cool.
The Bad: Desperate need for more lengthy storytelling, and Cormac McCarthy’s screenplay is a mess.
The Ugly: The use of the bolito. It’s disturbingly entertaining.