Film Review: “The Counselor”

MOVIE_counselor

McCarthy and Scott blatantly disregard plot, instead choosing to relish in self-indulgence

Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem
Rated R
Release Date Oct. 25

Considering Cormac McCarthy’s fame following the success of 2007’s “No Country For Old Men,” comparisons will inevitably be drawn between it and “The Counselor,” McCarthy’s first proper screenplay. And why shouldn’t it? Both films focus on a mysterious cast of characters circling a drug deal gone wrong, somewhere along the Mexico-U.S. border. Unfortunately, any similarity in quality that might be expected stops short at the films’ general subject matter.

Regular ranchers and drug dealers are abandoned in this film. Instead, the mystery and half-revealed details center on a cast of characters seemingly drawn from a melodramatic action blockbuster, most of them rich and petty drug lords enjoying a lavish lifestyle that includes Bentleys and pet cheetahs.

Into this world steps the mysterious “counselor,” played with quiet confidence by the excellent Michael Fassbender. With his new wife (Penelope Cruz) in hand, he dips his feet deeper into the drug trade to give her a better life. Predictably, as he awaits his plans to come to fruition, he is betrayed by a mysterious acquaintance. The counselor’s position as middleman for an unseen — yet omnipresent — drug cartel puts him in a dangerous position as they come seeking retribution.

The cartel is the overwhelmingly evil presence that lurks right around the corner, paralleling Anton Chigurgh in “No Country for Old Men.” But because the cartel is a mostly off-screen entity, viewers aren’t drawn into the dry and dangerous landscape the film depicts. Instead, we wait patiently for the danger to arrive.

Consequently, the plot can be summed up as one hour of talking and half-veiled threats, followed by another hour of slow degeneration into bloody chaos. It’s a thriller with no riveting drama or narrative, lacking a hook or a payoff. The only thrilling thing this film has going for it is an innovatively gruesome execution and a bizarre sex scene involving just Cameron Diaz and the windshield of a Ferrari.

The main weakness of “The Counselor” is crystallized in a scene towards the end of the movie. With the death toll rising, a new character drops in to deliver a monologue about the medieval poet Antonio Machado, who was willing to sacrifice all his talent for just one more hour with his deceased lover. It’s a beautifully written scene, but with no proper plot and character development leading up to it, we simply aren’t invested enough to care. “The Counselor” is strewn with scenes like this one, which appear grandiose and deep on paper, but feel hopelessly out of place on film. Whereas McCarthy’s trademark has always been his bleak and post-modern view of the Western genre, here he has apparently abandoned any attempt to string a proper plot together, and instead spent many dialogue-heavy scenes waxing philosophical to an uncaring audience. As such, “The Counselor” feels more like a postmodern theatre than Western.

This lack of immersion is only exacerbated by lines of dialogue that seem to be written directly for the audience as commentary, rather than for characters interacting with each other. Not even Javier Bardem’s role as a drug dealer with spiked-back hair and gaudy sunglasses can bring enough charisma to the dialogue to make it work.

Worst of all is that the most terrible lines are delivered by Cameron Diaz. As an actress not particularly well-suited for serious drama, she sorely sticks out here against the performances by Fassbender, Bardem and Brad Pitt. She orates her lines meant to underscore the Darwinistic struggle surrounding her with such sophomoric emphasis that it feels like one is watching a high school production of Shakespeare, not a film by some of the most renowned talent in the business today.

It’s uncertain whether the blame ultimately lies with a shoddy script by McCarthy, since this is his first foray into scriptwriting, or with poor execution from Ridley Scott, whose recent track record hasn’t been too stellar (see “Prometheus”). Suffice to say, if you’re a fan of either, simply stay home. This is “No Country for Old Men” with the thrill replaced by a bloated sense of self-importance.

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