When I first saw the trailer for The Counselor, my first reaction was “Wow, that looks great.” My second reaction, a split-second later, was “What’s it about?” Seriously, after so many months of hype about Ridley Scott’s star-studded latest, I was no closer to learning about a premise or a story. The commercials and promos seemed more like joke trailers made in parody of awards-bait thrillers, full of generic scenes that could have come from any movie, spliced with masturbatory compliments between Ridley Scott, Cormac McCarthy (here exec-producing his own first original screenplay), and the cast.
It’s like the studio thought they could sell a movie based purely on the cast and Ridley Scott’s direction, while steadfastly refusing to say anything about the story. Because, you know, that worked out so well for Prometheus. Really, swap out the Aliens pedigree for Cormac McCarthy’s pedigree and it’s the exact same strategy. Hell, The Counselor and Prometheus could’ve had the exact same premise, for all I knew going in.
Now, it bears mentioning that I knew this movie had quickly gained an awful reputation. Word of mouth on this film has been mixed to putrid. But of course that didn’t stop me. I’ve reviewed bad films with incredible casts before, if only for the chance to tear into them [see: My review of Romeo & Juliet (2013) a few days ago.].
But then I sit down to watch The Counselor, and the power goes out. The whole theater went dark. At the time, I took this as a sign that the universe was trying to tell me something. Yet here I am, the very next day, in the same damn theater to watch the same damn movie. So at this point, I’ve got no one to blame but myself.
Sure enough, this movie lost me pretty much immediately. It opens with Michael Fassbender’s character (who’s only ever called “Counselor”) and Penelope Cruz ( playing the Counselor’s soon-to-be fiancee) in bed together. Alas, the visuals drain any hint of eroticism from the proceedings. Even worse, the writing and acting are enough to make the scene border on unintentional comedy.
To repeat: Michael Fassbender and Penelope Cruz are in bed together, in what’s supposed to be a sensual love scene, and it’s not the least bit arousing. I’d say “God help this movie,” but what’s the point?
Speaking of Penelope Cruz, her husband is in this movie as well. Javier Bardem plays Rainer, one of Counselor’s many clients/business associates. Remember, the last time Bardem recited McCarthy dialogue, he gave us the terrifying motherfucker named Anton Chigurh. And he got an Oscar for it. This time, however, I’m sorry to say that Bardem’s talents are wasted. Aside from some rose-colored glasses and goofy-looking haircut (Chigurh’s haircut might have been stupid, but Rainer’s looks outright douchey), there’s nothing interesting or memorable about this character.
Oh, and Cameron Diaz plays Rainer’s ladyfriend. At least she gets to have fun chewing scenery as a hedonistic two-timing bitch. We also get some appearances by Brad Pitt, Rosie Perez, Natalie Dormer (who’s been very savvy about developing her filmography, I might add), and an uncredited cameo by John Leguizamo. They all do okay.
Now that we’ve got the film’s oh-so-special cast out of the way, what’s the story? Well, it turns out that much like Prometheus before it, the film’s plot had been withheld for so long because there really wasn’t much of a plot to begin with. The basic gist is that Counselor decides to invest in a drug smuggling business out of Juarez, and the shipment deal goes sideways for reasons that Counselor himself had nothing to do with. Nevertheless, the cartel is now missing $20 million worth of merchandise, so heads are going to roll. That means taking out the Counselor and anyone connected to him.
First of all, this is a Cormac McCarthy tale. There’s absolutely no chance of a happy ending here, and the characters seem painfully aware of that fact. The lion’s share of this plot consists of the Counselor going to some friend or associate for advice, they tell him that there’s no advice to give because he’s a dead man walking, repeat until the credits roll. It’s boring, it’s pointless, it’s misanthropic for its own sake.
Of course, what really kills this story is that the Counselor himself has no motivation for getting into the drug smuggling business to begin with. We know that it’s not just greed, because the Counselor and Rainer themselves shoot that possibility down. As far as I can tell, Counselor only did this to buy his fiancee a really expensive engagement diamond. He only wanted enough money for the two of them to live out their happily ever after. Horseshit. Based on everything I’ve seen about this guy’s house, his car, his work, his business associates, his clients, and his fiancee, I have absolutely no doubt that Counselor could already have afforded many years of wedded bliss and a rock that his fiancee would’ve been perfectly fine with.
Not only did the Counselor get into this for no intelligent reason, but he was warned at every single turn that he should not be doing this. Through the entire first act, Counselor is asked every five minutes if he really wants to be entering in a business deal with the sick demented fucks down in Juarez. He knew the risks, he knew he was in over his head, and he went ahead anyway with this completely pointless and stupid plan. No sympathy for him.
We have no reason to learn anything from the Counselor’s downfall, and we have no reason to emotionally invest in his development as a character. As such, the movie’s themes about death, consequences, and greed are all entirely moot. And of course, any attempt at suspense and drama would be shot straight to hell even without the characters telling us exactly what’s going to happen in every scene.
That’s something else this movie gets horribly wrong: Set-ups and payoffs. All too often, the characters will talk about one subject only to suddenly veer off into a completely unrelated subject for no unexplained reason. The sudden shift in dialogue is trying to masquerade as some opaque symbolic point, but we all know that it’s a clunky set-up to a terribly obvious payoff coming later on. Pathetic.
Oh, and don’t even get me started on the godawful dialogue (ex: “Don’t you think that’s kind of cold?” “I don’t think the truth has a temperature.”). Blegh.
Anyway, compare all of this to McCarthy’s most famous cinematic adaptation, No Country for Old Men. There was another misanthropic movie with a downer ending about a man who gets killed over money. The difference there is that Llewelyn Moss basically stumbled into his predicament. He didn’t go out looking for riches and mortal peril, they both more or less dropped into his lap. That’s much easier to sympathize with. Plus, the Coen Brothers did an amazing job of staging a tense cat-and-mouse chase between two very clever adversaries, which is far more interesting to watch than Ridley Scott’s pretentious twaddle.
There’s also Killing Them Softly, another Brad Pitt movie that dealt with many of the same themes and much of the same subject matter. But that movie made absolutely no apologies for its asshole characters. We were never meant to sympathize with any of them as Counselor repeatedly insists that we do with its namesake character. Moreover, the film supplemented its mean-spirited nature with fascinating and pitch-black commentary on the American Dream. I wanted to hear what that film had to say. With this movie, I couldn’t give two shits.
With all of that said, I’ll grant that the cast does a fine job with what they were given, and the visuals are quite good. Unfortunately, composer Daniel Pemberton is called upon to make the score all over-the-top and dramatic, to overcompensate for all the tedium happening onscreen.
The Counselor may be well-acted and beautifully shot, but the themes are presented in a horribly pretentious and boring way, and the story fails on several fundamental levels. Cormac McCarthy may be a talented writer of novels, but he seems to lack a basic understanding of how to structure a screenplay, particularly when it comes to that all-important matter of setups and payoffs.
Overall, this movie gives the impression that it could potentially have been interesting and thought-provoking if it wasn’t so half-baked, which is ultimately the vibe that I got from Prometheus. One such failure might have been a fluke, and two might have been a coincidence, but both of these back-to-back? Now I’m seriously starting to worry that Ridley Scott is losing it.
And now Scott is talking about directing a sequel to Blade Runner? Yeah, here’s hoping that stays in development hell until someone else can take over.