By Linc Leifeste | October 24, 2013
Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: Cormac McCarthy
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Richard Cabral, Rosie Perez, Rubén Blades, Bruno Ganz
Cormac McCarthy, in my opinion, is one of America’s greatest living novelists. A brutally insightful storyteller and master spinner of perfectly sparse dialogue, he has mastered the art form of the novel. But at 80 years old, this is first go-around at turning out a movie script, and if you’re not aware, those are two completely different beasts. That is to say that it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that The Counselor, directed by Ridley Scott (now there are two names I never imagined seeing together), isn’t a complete success. Yes, you have moments of McCarthy’s literary brilliance shining through but you also have moments of unnecessarily simplistic exposition from characters, spelling out that drugs are bad and greed is deadly. And it’s all employed in the service of McCarthy’s cold and brutal literary worldview, where when universal laws are broken, unstoppable events are set in motion, humanity be damned. It’s not a universe that I suspect many people will appreciate being dropped in for two hours, especially via a vehicle that is lacking in suspense, emotional warmth or even a taste of redemptive power.
Fassbender’s Counselor (his name is never revealed) is a successful El Paso, TX lawyer who represents sundry and sordid clients of exorbitant wealth. Fassbender is well cast as an unprincipled man who is cold and reserved, giving a performance that some might find lacking for the very qualities he so deftly delivers. He is on the verge of proposing to his girlfriend Laura (Penélope Cruz), the opening scene of their mid-day sexual escapades being by far the warmest of the film, but is on the verge of financial ruin for undisclosed reasons (is his secret just reckless over-expense or something other?). Coming on the heels of an expensive trip to Amsterdam to purchase a large diamond from cunningly cast philosophical jeweler Bruno Ganz, he’s entering into a major drug deal with a couple of his clients, deliciously decadent Texan criminal aristocrat Reiner (Javier Bardem) and cold, conniving middleman Westray (Brad Pitt), one of those cliched “one time and I’m out” jobs that’s always destined for disaster. Mexican drug cartels are involved and everyone is advising the Counselor to make the wise choice and not enter into that world but he’s not one to listen. Once wheels are set in motion, the Counselor and everyone else involved are powerless to stop them from turning.
The Counselor is basically a retelling of No Country for Old Men, set in the same part of the world and focusing on the same dark themes but featuring a cast of unlikable 1%’ers instead of working class characters. Sure, Scott makes this film look good but instead of a brilliant McCarthy novel retold through the masterful and quirky screenplay-writing talents of Ethan and Joel Coen, The Counselor suffers from having nobody to temper McCarthy’s indulgences or to whittle his literary talents down to cinematic proportions. Worst of all, if there’s an Anton Chigurh hand-of-fate character to be found in The Counselor it’s Reiner’s girlfriend, the sleek, sexual femme-fatale Malkina (Cameron Diaz), a role that Diaz simply does not have the chops, charm or gravitas to pull off.
No doubt there will be a lot of voices declaring this film a disaster. And this is not a film that a huge chunk of the movie-going-audience should flock to. It’s not film-as-joyous-escape or film-as-mindless-entertainment, nor even film-as-cautionary-tale. It’s dark, depressing and ugly but it’s also a film that rings true to me in certain ways, even if its truth is filtered through the male-centered worldview of older, white American men. And for fans of Cormac McCarthy’s writing, this film is graced with dialogue that will make your ears perk up before it worms its way through the recesses of your mind, even if it won’t warm your heart. And while the film doesn’t completely work as a whole, there are numerous well-crafted scenes that are a joy to behold, giving viewers the opportunity to watch masterful actors ply their trade. This is a film that, for those reasons alone, demands multiple viewings from those prone to appreciate what it has to offer.