Film Review: The Counselor

by Chad Liffmann on October 26, 2013

‘The Counselor’ is in need of some script counseling.

The Counselor

Michael Fassbender takes counsel in The Counselor

It was exciting to imagine what the product of a Ridley Scott-Cormac McCarthy collaboration would be like.  Add in an all-star cast and the anticipation grew stronger.  Unfortunately, the finished product leaves so much to be desired. The Counselor features an original screenplay by McCarthy, who’s normally credited only with writing the novels on which a few film adaptations have been based (No Country For Old Men, The Road), and the inexperience shows here.  The dialogue in The Counselor lacks flow, and in a story as convoluted as this, the flaws in the script are all the more blatant.

Michael Fassbender pays a lawyer, referred to only as “Counselor,” who, deep in debt, decides to ignorantly partake in the dark world of Mexican drug trafficking.  His parter in crime, Reiner (Javier Bardem), has mentally checked out of the game, instead enjoying the crazy parties and lavish lifestyle afforded him by his past transgressions.  Reiner is entertainingly oblivious, and subject to the rule of his unpredictable girlfriend, Malkina (Cameron Diaz).  Meanwhile, Counselor seeks occasional counsel from Reiner’s former partner, Westray (Brad Pitt), and also tries to keep up appearances with his loving girlfriend, Laura (Penelope Cruz).  As usually happens in films about drug trafficking, something goes wrong, and everybody involved becomes a target.  In this film, allegiances also become blurred, motives become nonsensical, and the violence continues to escalate to gratuitous levels.  Meanwhile, every single character, from the leads to the one-minute cameos, spout philosophical monologues like there’s nothing to it.

I’m a big Cormac McCarthy fan.  I’ve read many of his books, including No Country For Old Men, The Road, and two-thirds of the Border Trilogy (gonna read the third one soon).  It is no secret that he’s keen on aiming his storytelling sights on the dark and seedy underbelly of the characters and crimes surrounding the U.S.-Mexican border, the flaws of human nature, and the natural finality of human existence that many of us choose to ignore, or disregard.  These themes are in full force in The Counselor, but only through the aforementioned monologues.  Actions are much less significant.  The film is dark and twisted.  It isn’t a comfortable movie to watch and it tests your ability to cope with the unyielding cycle of violence (much like No Country for Old Men).  The Counselor would have a greater impact if its story weren’t so shallow.

Despite all that the story lacks, the actors are fantastically invested in it.  Javier Bardem once again takes a McCarthy character and knocks it out of the park.  He moves and talks like a man lost in his own world: he’s lost control, and has decided to embrace the old idiom that “ignorance is bliss.” Cameron Diaz is terrifyingly unsettling as a sexually charged, scheming, and overly controlling antagonist.  Her drive is in her desire to be atop the world, feeding off those who are weak and less greedy.  On the flip side is Laura, played with incredible emotional subtlety by Penelope Cruz.  As the film’s innocent bystander/love-interest, she’s required to deliver many of the mushier lines, but manages to suggest that her character’s softness is a byproduct of a more complex past.  Pitt has the easiest role, playing a cocksure advisor-type figure, yet he does so in a way that adds a thin underlying layer of fear of those that wish him harm.  Finally, in the title role, Fassbender is incredible.  His performance is almost entirely reactionary, but it runs the gamut.  Fassbender effortlessly handles being suave, arrogant, frantic, distraught, and, ultimately, broken.

You may read what I’m saying and think to yourself, well this all sounds rather dark, but at least intriguing enough to warrant a trip to the theater.  Sure, The Counselor has its fair share of life lessons, metaphors, and brazenly memorable moments (one in particular involving a horny Cameron Diaz and a car), but the story and flow get lost in their own self worth…and not on purpose, it would seem.  The story is not just convoluted; every aspect of the story is also already established, leaving nearly nothing to surprise, nor any characters to develop.  Perhaps that’s a bit of a harsh blanket statement because there is, indeed, some character development, but not enough to carry a story like this.  McCarthy sets out to deliver truck loads of profound discourses on life, choices, acceptance, and weakness.  But as most of us know, deep thoughts do not a strong character make!  I strongly suggest checking out McCarthy’s bibliography instead.

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The Counselor is playing in Bay Area theaters.

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