The world is full of terrible people who do terrible things, and good people who do equally terrible things. But that’s a distant thought when the people responsible for your most immediate situation, the viewing of the grueling trudge that is The Counselor, seem like the worst people in the world.
There are a few shocking things about The Counselor: The fact that it’s directed by Ridley Scott, the fact that it’s written by a Pulitzer Prize winning writer, the fact that it has, on paper, one of the greatest principle casts ever assembled and the fact that it’s dedicated to the memory of Tony Scott. That’s just tragic.
Scott and McCarthy try to go for gritty, dark ambiguity but things just sort of happen, only tangentially related because the same people sometimes show up again from scene to scene, and that everyone keeps saying “Counselor”. You know, in case you forgot that they were going for the hard-boiled-noir-main-character-with-no-name approach, which is pretty nonsensical in this case.
The whole affair is plodding and directionless, resembling a string of uninspired dialog scenes rather than a complete film. It’s a lot of people that we don’t know talking to people that we don’t know about things we know nothing about. It follows, loosely, a model where if a thing happens we might get to know what it was or meant 20 minutes later or not at all. That makes for an inherently frustrating viewing experience.
The events that transpire on-screen will have you thinking: “This is terrible”, but not in the way the filmmakers want you to, as they fail spectacularly to mine the dark depths of the soul. Scott & McCarthy have fired wildly off the mark with a film that has no real identity. It’s exceedingly dull, even when it tries to liven things up with a couple of action scenes. Here though it falls prey to the weak writing; the first scene is a firefight between people we don’t know and have barely even seen before. It’s not thrilling and neither is a chase between a person we don’t care about and, again, people we don’t know. There’s no danger or excitement in watching any of this. There’s no tension because there’s nothing to latch on to.
Cormac McCarthy‘s script is a huge perpetrator in the crime that is being committed upon you on the viewing of the film. It starts with the characters. On the whole they’re a bunch of largely unlikable, sexist, materialistic assholes that are entirely uncompelling and uninteresting to watch. None of them are fleshed out, there’s practically no sense of how they even relate to one another and when it’s over you’ll know practically as much as you did about them going in. These people aren’t really characters and, well, they’re barely even people. It’s perfectly fine to have characters that are bad just not bad characters.
Then there’s the dialog, oh dear the dialog. Most of the conversations, if they aren’t about drugs or making money, are about sex in one way or the other, but the film isn’t even remotely sexy or titillating, only limp and unenergetic. Every conversation is stilted and flows like a river of Marmite. It’s not uncommon to forget how they started as the thread is readily lost in the shuffle of faux-meaning and non-profundity.
There are two occasions of painfully obvious uses (and one more organic) of dramatic irony that are ham-fistedly forced into a pair of scenes, bolted on in a manner as natural as Javier Bardem‘s spray tan. The eventual pay-off is a duo of the film’s best scenes; one slightly moving and the other unsettling and hard to watch. It’s hardly worth it though.
There’s such a lack of meaningful connection to anything that happens that major character deaths are basically meaningless. There should be a happy medium in between overexposition and giving the audience what amounts to nothing, but it’s not to be found here. McCarthy is of course a novelist and there’s an overwhelming sense, or hope, that all this could work so much better as prose.
The star-studded cast rarely ever manages to rise above the writing and direction that seeks to contain their talents at every turn. Javier Bardem is middling as a tasteless, excessive drug-runner, Brad Pitt is okay as a cowboy money man (at least that’s what he appears to be, it’s not very clear) and Cameron Diaz is flat-out bad as… something. She’s supposed to be sultry and malevolent but the performance really fizzles when trying to bring either to the screen.
The only thing that makes the film even remotely bearable, which it really isn’t, is the acting of Michael Fassbender, as the titular counselor who lives beyond his financial health, and Penélope Cruz, his fiancée of ill-definition. Cruz shows up for a grand total of 5 or 6 instances, one of them involving her engagement to Fassbender. Her reactions are human and real, it’s a good piece of acting. She’s also the only non-despicable person that the film has to offer. Michael Fassbender is of course one of the best modern actors, not that he really gets to show it here. There are though a handful of moments where his skills shine through the writing and direction, most prominently in an end game scene where he manages to rip the faintest emotion out of the viewer on the strength of his crying. Really, he’s probably one of the best criers out there, even though that instance of crying is the only truly earned moment of waterworks, the other three are still great pieces of acting. Outside of that his natural charm does seep through from scene to scene and you’re reminded that Ol’ Sassy Fassy is a-okay.
Final Verdict: For a film that involves characters so consumed by wealth, The Counselor suffers from a profound poverty of quality. It’s a film that’s less than the sum of its very expensive parts and one that’s hard to recommend for, well, anyone.
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