Author and now-screenwriter Cormac McCarthy has never balked at portraying the darkness of the human heart in his works, but while previous films based on his writing have at least attempted to center on mildly sympathetic characters (from “The Road” to “All the Pretty Horses” and even “No Country for Old Men”), his first attempt at pure feature screenwriting doesn’t burden itself with such needs. In Ridley Scott’s “The Counselor”, the premium is instead placed on style over substance, and the result is a darkly tense drama that rarely hits anything resembling an emotional beat. At least it’s got major shock value to drive it, and the only joy involved in the production seems to come care of its audience’s half-giddy, half-horrified desire to see what bonkers event is going to happen next.
The film’s plot is relatively simple – Michael Fassbender’s eponymous counselor gets willingly mixed up in a big drug deal with one of his (apparent) clients Reiner (Javier Bardem) and his “business partner” (Brad Pitt), a deal that falls apart in spectacular and brutal fashion, thanks to a terribly strange coincidence that makes the trio look like self-serving rats to their counterparts across the border. Despite (or perhaps because of) its basic premise, McCarthy tries to make everything appear far more convoluted to his audience. We enter the film after the biggest bits of the deal have been hammered out, as the drugs are already been sent into America, and yet everyone talks in large circles about what’s at hand (thankfully, Pitt’s Westray makes mention of Fassbender’s investment early on, clarifying a bit of the sense of “what the hell is going on?” that runs through the entire production).
Cast here as an American lawyer (with an accent that jars throughout), Fassbender turns in the rare disappointing performance, though most of the blame surely rests on a script that gives his character little to do beyond looking, at turns, totally cool and completely unhinged. It’s a persistent problem in the film, really, as despite having a stacked cast of recognizable Hollywood talent at its disposal – Fassbender, Bardem, Pitt, Cameron Diaz, and Penelope Cruz – “The Counselor” doesn’t require actual star power to deliver dazzling work, simply because so many of its characters are kitted out with a bevy of weird personality traits and overwhelming costume, hair, and makeup choices that they would be remarkable enough even if an unknown played them.
Surprisingly, it’s Diaz’s character who is the most fascinating of the group, but the actress’ frequently tone-deaf and hammy line delivery aren’t what make her Malkina stand out, it’s the film’s weird combination of unbearably tense tone, horrifying costume choices, and one hell of a horrible haircut that drive her. Diaz, however, is admirably game when it comes to going whole hog on her character, going so far as to engage in a jaw-dropping (and weirdly amusing) sex act with a car. That particular scene, however, is elevated to instant classic territory due to Bardem’s (who plays her whipped boyfriend in the film) absolutely perfect and very funny facial reactions (and his later musings on the event).
“The Counselor,” strange as it may be, is worth the price of admission just to see whatever the hell it is that Bardem and Diaz are doing here, as a decadently rich couple steeped in bad deeds and illegal acts. The pair are so wealthy, in fact, that when we first meet them, they are watching their pet cheetahs (making “The Counselor” the most unexpected send up of “Who’s That Girl” of the past decade) hunt jackrabbits across the open Texas plains, clearly one of their favorite pastimes (and perhaps the most “rich person” pastime ever conceived of, it makes croquet look positively gauche). Reiner and Malkina may be bonded by their love of money, but trashy clothes, over-the-top jewelry, and staggeringly bad haircuts appear to keep them together on a daily basis. If anything, “The Counselor” is good reminder that money can’t buy taste, nor can it provide solid follicle-based decision-making.
When it comes to the rest of the cast, Pitt proves to be reliably solid, which is particularly interesting, considering that he’s clearly having a good time with his role. Cruz, however, does manage to inject her relatively small part with plenty of believable emotion, made all the more striking when Fassbender tries to go for a similar angle later in the film and just manages to look uncharacteristically sloppy in doing so.
The film is a deeply tense affair, a tangible achievement considering just how obviously foreshadowed some of its most violent scenes are (and yes, the film comes with plenty of bleak, plain-faced violence). Scott and McCarthy are concerned with portraying the minutiae of processes over passing along vital information about bigger chunks of actual storyline, but they have managed to make five minutes of a guy stringing wire across a quiet highway feel riveting enough to bolster the rest of the film.
“The Counselor” is unfortunately permeated with a sickly sense of “cool” – cool sets, cool places, cool music, cool people, even the “cool” distance of only referring to its main character by his profession (and the film’s title) – that keep it from hitting any emotional and substantive high notes. McCarthy and Scott also riddle the film with one-off characters that pop up, spout of a bunch of philosophical BS for whole minutes, before disappearing back into the ether. The entire thing may speak of the meaningless violence of life (or at least lives dedicated to evil in its many forms), but that doesn’t mean that the film itself must feel so terribly meaningless on its own.
SCORE: 6.8 / 10