The Counselor Reviews
Decent Film! There were a few disturbingly violent scenes that boosted the film's tone, for lack of a better term, literally, and reminded us of the excellence of No Country for Old Men. You're also met with an outrageous sex scene that's equally disturbing and sexy for some, and those scenes might be the only snippets of The Counselor remembered down the road. The ending was also not very reassuring, cutting to the credits unexpectedly shortly after another monotonous and ambiguous conversation. The only decent element of this movie was its soundtrack, but then again, its quality could've just been determined in comparison to the oddity and nuisance that the rest of the film consisted of. In sum, the best way to describe The Counselor is "brutally unsatisfying." I felt no sense of satisfaction by the time it drew to a close, and everything simply felt so meaningless and forgettable. There's no question that it left a bad taste in my mouth, and I sincerely hope that Ridley Scott ups his game sometime soon.
A rich and successful lawyer, the Counselor, is about to get married to his fiancÚe but soon becomes entangled in a complex drug plot with a middle-man known as Westray. The plan ends up taking a horrible twist and he must protect himself and his soon to be bride as the truth of the drug business is uncovered and targets are eliminated.
Deeply in love with his fianc├ (C)e Laura (Penelope Cruz), The Counselor (Michael Fassbender) aims to provide a high standard of living for her. To do so, he enters into a one-time deal with dangerous drug dealer Reiner (Javier Bardem), his sociopathic girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) and middle-man Westray (Brad Pitt). Despite several warnings about the severe consequences of dealing with the Mexican cartel, The Counselor foolishly decides to go ahead anyway.
"Inert", "directionless", "disjointed", "misjudged" - these are just a few of the adjectives that I came across when "The Counselor" was released to mass disappointment. As a result, I went into it with very heavy reservations. If truth be told, I was preparing to write a scathing review where I could really pick out the flaws and expose them for all their ludicrousness. Much to my surprise then, that after 20 mins I found myself with nothing to criticise and if anything, I started to find my feet in this elaborate thriller and found myself enjoying it more and more with every passing minute. It became apparent that this isn't a film that's "misjudged", this is a film that has received a very misjudged marketing campaign. It's not the fast paced, slick crime thriller that many were expecting but more of a deliberate and philosophical parable about the nature of greed and the rippling effect of immoral decisions.
A lot has been said about McCarthy's first ever screenplay and his unconventional method. Many have claimed it to be deliberately cryptic and indecipherable. Admittedly, at times, it can be but the real key to understanding the film is breaking through our preconceived ideas of how dialogue should be delivered. The answers are there, they just need that extra concentration and willingness to find them. Some lengthy monologues do keep the audience at a particular arms length and it can be difficult to break through their very dense and metaphoric meanings but I managed to play along and actually found the film to be richly rewarding.
It looks fantastic, with wonderful picturesque locations and even though the characters are lavish and colourful, this is still a very believable and foreboding criminal underworld. Scott shows a confident handling of the material and the acting ensemble all seem fully committed to McCarthy's abstract and idiosyncratic prose. I didn't get the impression that they felt strained or unsure of what they were involved in here and that's primarily what makes the film work. Each of their characters are convincing and they all deliver solid performances.
That being said, this is not a film that will appeal to everyone and it's entirely understandable why it hasn't been kindly received. Very little is explained; there's no backstory or linear conclusion and even Fassbender's Counselor is never revealed by name. In fact, those that were critical of the underwhelming epilogue of the Coen brothers' adaptation of McCarthy's "No Country For Old Men" in 2007 will likely be frustrated with "The Counselor" in it's entirety. The whole film operates on that suggestive level. It's a bold and daring move but one that I find respects the audiences ability to read into events and possibilities.
Having been disappointed in a lot of Ridley's Scott's recent films, I was expecting more of the same here. Far from it, though. This is a highly underrated neo-noir that's one of Scott's best efforts for some time and McCarthy constructs a transcendent, almost Shakespearean, tragedy. It only leaves me with hope that this won't be the last time he writes a screenplay - despite it's much maligned reception.
The monologues and advice to the Counselor are overly complex at times, giving the sense that McCarthy wrote this as he would one of his books, where you have the benefit of re-reading and digesting passages slowly. The scene with Bardem recounting the "car incident" is one of the funniest moments on film this year!
The titular Counselor (Michael Fassbender) seems to have a nice life. He's just proposed to his girlfriend, Laura (Penelope Cruz), and their sex life is vigorous. Then an old client, Reiner (Javier Bardem), invites the Counselor in on a shady drug transportation deal. The allure of easy money is too much for the Counselor to resist. Naturally, things do not go according to plan. A Mexican cartel intercepts the transport truck, bodies pile up, and the stakes get very personal for the Counselor.
To be blunt, if Cormac McCarthy had submitted this script under a different name, it never would have made its way to the big screen. This is the award-winning author's first screenplay and it shows. The pacing is shockingly slack, with the film rarely having any sense of life onscreen. I'm not a slave to the standard three-act structure of Hollywood screenwriting, but you need to produce something that keeps pushing the film forward, heading to a finale that seemed inevitable. McCarthy's script is bogged down with pointless scene after pointless scene, little arias that get away from him, indulging his characters to monologue at length about philosophical nonsense. There are lengthy conversations about diamond shapes, the very nature of existence, and all sorts of Matrix Reloaded-like lingual excesses. These characters talk round and round; it feels like there aren't even other characters in the room. Their lengthy, pretentious conversations also do little to push the narrative along or reveal essential bits of character. You get to hear one crime kingpin talk about his favorite poet. Great, but what can you say about him beyond the fact that he's well read? Every character in this movie, from top to bottom, is a vapid space. Some of them have interesting aspects/quirks, like owning cheetahs or masturbating on car windshields, but not one character can be described as interesting. Beyond the terms "ruthless," "pragmatic," and "na´ve," I cannot even fathom a way to describe anyone in this film. They don't even really work as plot devices because that would imply causality. When you couple the void of characterization with ponderous, rambling dialogue, then you're already sabotaging your entertainment chances.
The plotting is muddled beyond all comprehension. I like to consider myself a pretty sharp moviegoer, but I was left scratching my head far too often. With a paucity of characterization and some idle pacing, I was confused as to what exactly was going on, sometimes even just at a literal level. What was this plan? How do all the players fit in? Why are the betrayers acting as they do? Who works for whom? Why should I be shocked about revealing the identity of a betrayer when it was made all too obvious in a previous scene (note: this is so directly transparent that it cannot count as foreshadowing)? Why does the appearance of a DVD signify finality after a previous phone conversation already did the same thing? And most of all why should I care? Watching this movie is like traveling through a long, impenetrable fog. There are serious, ongoing clarity issues, which make those florid digressions and overall pointless character nattering to be even more maddening. There are well known actors that come in just for single scenes, and then those scenes amount to little to nothing on the overall bearing of the plot. The Counselor doesn't feel like a fully formed story; it feels like a collection of 30 scenes served as disposable sides for actors during preliminary auditions.
Even worse, for a film about drug deals gone badly, murder, and Cameron Diaz masturbating on a windshield, The Counselor is deathly boring. I grew restless before the halfway mark and just kept hoping beyond all evidence that the film was going to find some direction and pick up the intrigue. It did not. The film's essential story structure, criminals getting in over their head and paying a price, is a familiar one. This structure can work to marvelous results both grand (Goodfellas) and small (Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead). Hell, even McCarthy's own novel lead to the brilliant, Best Picture winner No Country For Old Men. Look at how the Coen brothers approach the macho, nihilistic material as opposed to its author. They created a sense of all-consuming dread with efficiency, elegance, and their characteristic macabre sense of humor. Watching The Counselor, it's like the turgid knockoff of a McCarthy novel. When I got home I felt like I had to watch a Quentin Tarantino movie to wash the bad taste out of my mouth. Tarantino is given to long indulgences of elaborate dialogue as well, but he makes his characters interesting, with personalities that grab you and stand out, and listening to his dialogue is a pleasure unto itself.
McCarthy's brand of ruthless killing has its peculiar intrigue, but again it only functions as morbidly fascinating little asides. The use of tripwire is given high priority by the killers onscreen, decapitating a speeding motorcyclist and cutting into the jugular with another character. It's a strange, harrowing, and gruesome manner of death, but is it at all practical? I know I'm treading dangerous waters bringing the concept of reality to a murky film, but what killer decides to set up a wire approximately neck high across a road? It seems likely that another car would travel that same road in the hours of buildup. It also seems highly lucky to adjust the wire to the exact height to cut into the neck. I'm no professional killer but it seems like a lot of setup and guesswork. I have to imagine there are far easier ways to kill a speeding cyclist or a man walking along the street. Attention professional hitmen of the movies: stop making your job more difficult than it has to be. Nobody is awarding you a ribbon for Most Inventive Kill.
There are plenty of pretty faces in this movie, genuine acting talent, and to strand them with precious little characterization is an outrage. Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) is a little too sly to play na´ve, and his later actions lack a necessary sense of desperation to sell his emotional plummet. Cruz (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides) is so effortlessly sensual but is put on the sidelines early and stuck in the damsel-in-distress box. Brad Pitt (World War Z) is the slick snake charmer we've seen plenty of times before. But the worst lot goes to Diaz (Bad Teacher). She's supposed to be mysterious and threatening as Reiner's sexually adventurous girlfriend but Diaz plays things so stone-faced serious. This poor woman is given the most unerotic, bizarre sex scene in modern history to enact, and I don't know whether to applaud or pity her. Sure she gets to uncork some meaty monologues about Malkina's trenchant world perspective, but this is the movie that will be defined by Diaz humping a windshield. At least the movie plays this out somewhat realistically, with Reiner more horrified than aroused. What did that outrageous scene add up to? Also, Penelope Cruz plays a "Laura" and Cameron Diaz a "Malkina"?
I know it's a petty thing but it really irritated me how often people refer to Fassbender's character as "Counselor." The end credits do reveal this to be his name. If you thought it got irksome hearing Leonardo DiCaprio say "ole sport" after every other sentence in The Great Gatsby, then enjoy the repetitive declaration of Fassbender's lone job title. "What do you think, Counselor? I don't know, Counselor. I'd think things over, Counselor." Do people really refer to somebody by this title as their name, and so frequently? He also doesn't seem to be a competent lawyer at all.
The Counselor is such an unforgivably boring slog, languid and rudderless when it should be thrilling and complex. The characters are nonexistent, the plotting is muddled and confusing, the dialogue often laborious and roundabout, and the overall film is too meandering to properly engage an audience. Even talented people can produce bad movies, and here is further proof. With this cast, with this crew, there is no excuse for The Counselor to be overwhelmingly stilted and tedious. I cannot fathom what attracted the talent to this film beyond the cache of working on "Cormac McCarthy's first screenplay." If the results of The Counselor are any indication, I don't know if we'll be seeing too many McCarthy screenplays in the future, or at least McCarthy scripts that haven't been vetted by other writers who better understand the contours of the medium. His florid arias and abstract, directionless plotting can be forgiven on the page, but no on the screen. Scott doesn't help matters, taking great care to film the luxury of the lifestyles on screen. What we're left with is a tepid movie about bad people meeting bad ends, with little entry for an audience to care or even find entertainment. The art direction is given more care than the characters. In the weeks leading up to its release, The Counselor adopted a tagline from a quote by Laura: "Have you been bad?" It was turned into the Twitter hashtag promoting the film. Well, Counselor, you've been very bad.
Nate's Grade: C-
It is a shame because there is a good deal to appreciate here if one has a lot of patience, starting with Javier Bardem and Michael Fassbender who can do no wrong. Bardem plays Reiner whose luxury car dealership is a front for a drug smuggling business while Fassbender plays an unnamed lawyer who is joining the business. Both men enjoy a lavish lifestyle and badly need money to enjoy the finer things in life.(Not to mention that cheetah chow probably does not come cheap.) The lawyer has just gotten engaged to Laura(Penelope Cruz), traveling to Amsterdam to buy her an expensive, if not ostentatious ring which she shows off to Malkina(Cameron Diaz), Reiner's sexual obsession.
Beneath that gilded and glitzy level, lies all the crap, literal and metaphorical, where all the work gets done and all the bodies are. This exists in contrast to the central players, but also on a collision course with them.
I liked the beginning of the story... you cannot be uninterested when a movie begins with a man, known only as "The Counselor" (Michael Fassbender) and his girlfriend Laura (PenÚlope Cruz) are lying in bed and having oral sex! You have to be drawn in. At the same time, somewhere in Mexico, cocaine is being packaged in barrels and concealed in a sewage truck which is driven across the border and stored at a sewage treatment plant. The story develops carefully, and we are seeing The Counselor going to Amsterdam to meet a diamond dealer (Bruno Ganz) in order to purchase an engagement ring for Laura. The problems start developing after he attends a party at a house owned by Reiner (Javier Bardem) and his girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) where The Counselor and Reiner have a lengthy discussion, during which Reiner claims that The Counselor is not capitalizing on his position of power as much as he could be. The Counselor meets with Westray (Brad Pitt), a business associate, to express interest in a drug deal with a four-thousand percent return rate... well, high returns are usually associated with high risks!
Acting in this movie should be mentioned separately, because it was classy, well above the material the actors had to work with! Michael Fassbender as The Counselor, a lawyer who delves into the dark world of trafficking through his business partner Reiner, marks Fassbender's second collaboration with Ridley Scott, following Prometheus. And it was impressive, as was the role of Cameron Diaz as Malkina. Diaz managed to bring to the screen perfectly a character which is a pathological liar and a sociopath; an immigrant who is now living the high-life after escaping a sordid past where she was an exotic dancer. Angelina Jolie was attached to the role before Diaz was cast. Javier Bardem as Reiner, was not at all as I expected, but he did a wonderful transformation to a charismatic entrepreneur by day and an underground drug kingpin by night who likes to live dangerously and carefree. Jeremy Renner and Bradley Cooper were in the running before Bardem was cast. PenÚlope Cruz as Laura did the job required - perfect na´ve and generally positive, religious woman who values tradition, but only the first part was outstanding, the rest of the role was more of a background for the others events. I don't know if Natalie Portman would be better in this role, but she was attached to the role before Cruz was cast. Last to be mentioned today is Brad Pitt as Westray. What a character to portray - a womanizing, charismatic middleman and a friend of Reiner's who meets with The Counselor to develop the deal, he is the one who understands the drug world better than Reiner but his vices for women and alcohol could prove to be a fatal flaw. This marks Pitt's second collaboration with Ridley Scott following a similar character he played in Thelma & Louise. I didn't mind the characters, but I have to admit that most of that talent was wasted, because we had all these nicely portrayed individuals which were joined unnaturally together, thanks to the screenplay which halfway simply run out of breath!
If you want to see wasted talent in a movie which has the names, and packaging, but not much in it, please, give it a go!