After blindly walking into ‘The Counselor’ with absolutely no knowledge of the story, aware only that it was written as Pulitzer Prize-winner Cormac McCarthy’s first original screenplay, I had to chew on it a long while before making up my mind. After several hours and much discussion with fellow critic friends, I’ve come to the conclusion that ‘The Counselor’ is a beautiful mess that will probably become one of the year’s biggest love-it-or-hate-it films.
Michael Fassbender leads the ensemble cast as a character solely known as “Counselor,” a crooked lawyer whose lavish lifestyle exceeds his income. Because his gorgeous new fiancée (Penelope Cruz) expects this way of life to continue after their marriage, he takes a buddy (Javier Bardem) up on the offer to buy into a drug smuggling operation. With shallow pockets, Counselor has to hit up another shady friend (Brad Pitt) in order to finance his part of the deal. Of course, this seemingly easy venture isn’t as great as it sounds, and the plan hits a bump in the road – or perhaps I should say a “wire in the road.” (If you’ve seen the trailers, then you’ll understand my terrible pun.)
I’ve read three of McCarthy’s novels – ‘All the Pretty Horses’, ‘The Road’ and ‘No Country for Old Men’ – and loved each of them for being so different from one another. As I’d hoped, ‘The Counselor’ is also quite different from any of those three. As I’d also hoped, it’s full of not just tension, but deep philosophy too. Aside from the weak and faltering central character, everyone in the movie has a profound view of life, love, crime and wealth. The film only features one truly and genuinely good character – the others are all villains or anti-heroes – yet all of these awful people are able to wax poetic about their philosophies. In this fashion, McCarthy’s screenplay is brilliant. Unfortunately, the way that it’s put together on screen is a bit too messy.
In the end, here’s what I walked away with:
1) McCarthy can still write some of the most original deaths possible. In ‘No Country for Old Men,’ his villain Anton Chigurh killed his victims with a pressurized cattle gun. In ‘The Counselor’, he has two more unique killing methods, one of which is so terrifying that, since I watched the film, I’ve been contemplating ways to get around it should anyone ever try to take me out with it. As morbid as that sounds, these kills are pretty refreshing compared to what you see in most action movies.
2) Ridley Scott has a hard time staying focused. Just when you think ‘The Counselor’ has locked in a definitive tone, it flips to something completely odd and unpredictable. The worst example of this is a jarring scene in which Cameron Diaz engages in a sexual act with the most unlikely of inanimate objects. It comes out of nowhere and serves absolutely no purpose. Without fail, the film will do something fantastic followed by something so ridiculously wild and uncalled for that it jostles you right out of the story.
3) Cameron Diaz was an awful casting decision. While the rest of the cast act their parts in realistic fashion, Diaz chomps scenery with an overly dramatized, one-note and predictable performance. She acts like she’s the lead in some generic genre movie, but the rest of the cast pump out genuine and believable dramatic performances.
Can I recommend ‘The Counselor?’ Maybe. If you love Ridley Scott, probably not. The depth of McCarthy’s writing is what separates this from other Scott productions. This is not a mainstream-friendly film. If you like Cormac McCarthy, my recommendation depends on whether you’re aware that you’re about to see Scott attempt to do McCarthy’s brilliant writing justice (and somewhat ruin it). If you can stomach that, then see it. But if you want to take in McCarthy’s writing for its full potential, skip this and pick up a copy of the screenplay. By reading McCarthy’s pure writing, you can experience ‘The Counselor’ without suffering Scott’s clunky way of bringing it to life.
Should you decide to give the movie a go anyway, I wish you the best of luck.