Review: The Counselor
It sounds like an intriguing proposition: novelist Cormac McCarthy (author of No Country for Old Men and The Road) pens an original screenplay about an upstanding lawyer who gets caught up in the U.S.-Mexico drug trade. But even though has an all-star cast, a large budget, the backing of a major studio, and direction by Ridley Scott, the result often underwhelms.
The film opens with some risqué bed play between the eponymous Counselor (Michael Fassbender) and his lovely girlfriend, Laura (Penelope Cruz). This domestic bliss is abruptly followed by a scene involving a pair of hungry cheetahs hunting prey in the desert. These turn out to be pets belonging to Reiner (Javier Bardem), an overly tanned Bond villain with cartoonish, spiky hair, and mean-as-sin Malkina (Cameron Diaz), a couple of unsavory types who clearly are up to something illegal and lucrative. The contrast between the loving couple in bed and the seedy pair who keeps wild predators as pets is stark. Needing money, the Counselor makes the mistake of entering into business with Reiner. The exact nature of their dealings is left vague, but clearly drugs are involved.
The first half of the film proceeds somewhat aimlessly, as the Counselor encounters morally compromised individuals and engages in philosophical conversations about drugs and money while drinking well before noon. Besides Reiner, his most frequent drinking partner is Westray (Brad Pitt), a slimy cowboy type who warns the Counselor about the dangers of the deal, but cannot be trusted. The novelistic dialogue is delivered too rapidly to be savored, but there are some excellent one-liners along the way. (Reiner: “You don’t think that’s a bit cold?” Malkina: “I think truth has no temperature.”)
After the drug deal between Reiner, Westray, the Counselor, and their unseen partners sours, the action heats up considerably. Its action sequences are The Counselor’s highpoint. It is only when the bullets (and heads) go flying that it feels like Ridley Scott is interpreting the screenplay rather than simply presenting it. Worth special note is a shocking shootout between anonymous gunmen posing as cops and actual cops that leaves the highway covered in blood and the viewer stunned. Unstinting on gore, The Counselor also delivers a weighty dollop of McCarthy’s signature existential pessimism and bleak sense of humor.
Bardem’s heart isn’t in his character, and it shows in his difficult-to-decipher English and lazy delivery. Diaz does an adequate job as Malkina, who cherishes her cheetahs more than her boyfriend. Diaz focuses her performance on Malkina’s spitefulness, but displays no psychological nuance in the character. The Counselor and his lovely companion Laura are by far the cleanest in an extended cast of obscenely dirty characters. Whereas he and Laura clearly love one another and consider marrying in a church, Malkina mocks the very notion of confession by visiting the local priest and glibly telling him of her sexual escapades. Fassbender speaks with a gravel-mouthed drawl that gives the Counselor the kind of texture that the film’s other characters lack, save for Cruz who is convincing as the pious Laura.
That Reiner and Malkina sometimes seem more like character sketches than actual people is disappointing. Yet even if The Counselor fails to live up to its hype, with its snappy dialogue and satisfying action sequences, it is a good bit of naughty fun.