Review: 'The Counselor' a Gorgeous Dumpster Fire of Greed, Violence

October 25, 2013

The Counselor

On paper, The Counselor sounds like an excellent idea. Another story about blood-soaked drug money written by No Country For Old Men novelist Cormac McCarthy, the author's first work written for the screen. Direction from a man who knows how to make violent images pop with stylized beauty, that being Ridley Scott. Add a stellar cast filling extremely eccentric roles, and you have a recipe for a bleak masterpiece. Who knew McCarthy would be the weakest in this package? The style of the images and impact of the acting can only take the film so far, and it ends up being an aimless, often convoluted dumpster fire of ideas that makes one wonder if the author's works aren't best as adaptation when it comes to the cinema.

McCarthy's characters this time around are just as varied and colorful as you would expect. Michael Fassbender stars as The Counselor - name never given - a lawyer whose greed gets the better of him. That theme is familiar to fans of McCarthy's work, as well. The lawyer and his business partner, played by Javier Bardem, are in the process of working out a deal with a Mexican drug cartel to ship a truckload of illegal narcotics up through the US to Chicago, the deal sure to make both men incredibly rich.

The same goes for their respective spouses, the lawyer set to marry the love of his life, played by Penélope Cruz, and the partner having recently married a woman with very expensive tastes, that character played by Cameron Diaz. But no plan is perfect, and as the characters involved soon realize, when things go wrong on a Mexican drug deal, they go horribly wrong, and heads are soon rolling. Literally. Again, this is a story by Cormac McCarthy.

Not only does The Counselor share similarities in story from McCarthy's previous, successful work, many of the characters, the main characters especially, seem copied from No Country For Old Men. Some of the similar counterparts are best left unexplained. The cryptic nature of The Counselor makes almost any reveal about any character spoiler territory. The film is loaded with murky intentions and enigmatic exchanges, each character speaking with a voice that sounds strangely like the author. "Maybe I should tell you what Mickey Rourke told what's his face," says Brad Pitt at one point as the middle man for the deal. Even the movie references in The Counselor are cryptic.

The Counselor

That isn't even the screenplay's greatest problem, though. The film meanders through inconsequential scenes, a myriad of fat that adds little to the overall story and could have easily been cut altogether. Much of this has to do with Diaz' character, who plays a much bigger role in the film than you may first expect. Her individual scenes certainly build her character, but they're arbitrary enough that you can't help but wonder if they couln't have been glued to the overall narrative more convincingly. Other scenes are less arbitrary, but McCarthy's themes of "Greed is bad" and "If you're going to be bad, be ruthless" get driven into the viewer's skull like blunt nail, not subtle and not pleasant at all.

The unpleasantness is to be expected. McCarthy has built his career on bleakness and the realities of what can go down when things turn to violence. The Counselor, on hand, is very bleak, but there's a cynicism as work here. Even The Road had some semblance of hope buired beneath all the gray and dirt in which the story was drenched. The Counselor is a pessimistic turn for the author, one made all the more evident against the vibrance working in Scott's direction.

That, too, is an expected element to the film. The Counselor is creative in its violence, the ways one can lose their head apparently as varied as the characters in the film. It all plays out with the typical glitz and pop of a Scott movie. The colors infused into every scene makes The Counselor appear as if it were directed by Tony Scott's ghost rather than the elder brother. Whether it's intentional or not, the color palette at work here plays into the gaudiness of the film's characters, and even the subtler scenes here, few and far between that they are, give you something striking to feast your eyes upon.

The Counselor

Scott also nails it with the casting, Fassbender especially who gives the plain vanilla lawyer a depth and dynamic that the character doesn't even have. We know so little about the man, not even his name, but Fassbender makes him a character worth believing. The same goes for Cruz, who has even less development in her character than the protagonist. She's solid in her delivery, and the single-dimensional damsel in distress almost appears to have more to do here than she actually does. Bardem, Diaz, and Pitt are all spot-on in the color they weave into their characters, even if each of them have crutches with which to rest on; Bardem's wild hair, Diaz' gold tooth and leopard print tattoo, and Pitt's gigantic cowboy hat. Still, their performances are secure, most of that stemming from their fearlessness. Diaz shares a particularly fearless scene with a car, so fearless that it's downright uncomfortable. That too is intentional.

But even with so much going right for The Counselor, the blueprints for this particular work are not altogether in working order. No Country For Old Men and The Road were adapted for the screen by parties other than McCarthy, other artists able to mold and shape the original works until they have all the appearances of their former selves but with added nuances and character depth. The Coen Brothers excelled at this. The Counselor is Cormac McCarthy's work through and through, a concentrated blast from the author that could have definitely used with some diffusion. Scott's direction enhances the narrative, and that cast - including a mess of cameos each one more pleasantly surprising than the previous - couldn't be better. However, The Counselor suffers from its messiness, and one only wishes there were more on the chopping block than a couple of bloody heads.

Jeremy's Rating: 6 out of 10
Follow Jeremy on Twitter - @JeremyKKirk

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