Review: ‘The Counselor’

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In the Ridley Scott-directed, Cormac McCarthy-penned The Counselor, Michael Fassbender plays an attorney who involves himself in drug trafficking, and when the deal goes bad, is relentlessly taught a lesson by the cartels. The film, featuring an all-star cast including Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Penelope Cruz and Cameron Diaz, chastises opportunists in the United States who contribute to the cartel activity that has so devastated parts of Mexico and the Southwest, equating such complicity to the accomplice act of watching a snuff film.

Ryan: I don’t think it’s a misstatement to say The Counselor was one of the most hotly anticipated movies of the year for both of us. Ridley Scott has as much visual aptitude as any living director; even his bad movies LOOK great, for the most part. And Cormac McCarthy, besides being a Pulitzer Prize-winning author in his own right, has served as the inspiration for several high-profile films, including Oscar darling No Country For Old Men. So you take a director with a great eye, and a writer with a great ear, and the result’s a slam dunk, right? Suffice it to say, I wouldn’t be gilding the lily to this extent if that were true.

The Counselor doesn’t work. It has numerous individual moments that succeed for a variety of reasons ‒ some of them thanks to Scott’s talents, others to McCarthy’s ‒ but they don’t add up to a rewarding experience. The movie is plodding and disjointed, and feels more like a series of vignettes intended to speak towards a larger theme than a homogenous narrative. Some of this can be attributed to the script, which is McCarthy’s first produced cinematic work (he previously wrote a script that was adapted for television in the ‘70s). The dialogue is frequently sharp and vivid, characteristic of a writer who can turn a phrase better than almost anyone on Earth. But if anything, the film’s overwritten―conversations and monologues frequently overstay their welcome, and the pace suffers as a consequence. That said, Scott has to bear some of the responsibility as well, for trying to film this script as a tense, fast-paced crime thriller instead of … well, whatever it was actually meant to be.

People will inevitably compare The Counselor to No Country for Old Men, given the latter movie’s critical adoration. The more I think about it, the more that seems an unfair comparison. No Country, while based on McCarthy’s novel of the same name, was an adaptation nonetheless. One of the greatest advantages inherent to an adaptation is it gives a screenwriter and director the opportunity make changes, to ensure the best possible movie while retaining the spirit of the source material. No Country preserved the themes of the book, as well as McCarthy’s language, but also stripped away what wouldn’t work in a film. The Counselor shows that McCarthy’s understanding of what works on film lags behind his skill with prose or stage writing. To that end, I wonder if it’s better to compare The Counselor to one of his plays, like The Sunset Limited for instance. Like a play, The Counselor is comprised primarily of dialogue and is not particularly ambitious in its scene-setting. In fact, with a few changes I think The Counselor might have worked much better in that medium. As a film, however, it’s a big misfire.

Rebecca: Who would have ever thought that an artist like Cormac McCarthy could produce a film so inartful? So lazily obvious and, well, tired? First off, I am a McCarthy fan, and have enjoyed to varying degrees all the film adaptions of his work (the only one I haven’t seen is the generally forgotten Matt Damon-vehicle All the Pretty Horses). Even though The Counselor displays McCarthy’s trademark philosophizing about the nature of life and death, as well his proclivity for creative applications of violence, this film falls apart on many levels. Believe it or not, the script is significantly longer than what is onscreen! So, this is the restrained version of McCarthy’s original vision. While I agree that McCarthy’s script is woefully overwrought and ill-designed for film, I equally blame Ridley Scott’s straight-forward, uninteresting direction, which adds zero texture to the film’s atmosphere, nor does it compliment dialogue that can be overly ornate and irrelevant, or trying so hard to be relevant every line that it becomes humorously and pretentiously self aware.

The heavy handed morality arc gives Fassbender little to do but react, look good in suits (boy, does he ever) and then, when his life is ruined, cry so hard his nose gets snotty, the truest expression of grief, according to Hollywood. But just as much time is spent on Diaz’ villain, and by extension what she represents: the relationship between sex and death and power. The two primary female characters fall into the archetypical Madonna/Whore trap, with one woman, played by Penelope Cruz, flatly good, religious and one-note; and the other no-boundaries sexual, conniving and savage (Diaz). To avoid any confusion about just how animalistic and eeeevil she is, Diaz even sports cheetah tattoos and owns two big cats that she likes to watch hunting rabbits in the dessert.

Diaz’ villain is a play on the tendency to feminize nature (the term “Mother Nature” being a well-known example of this), but McCarthy twists the stereotype so it’s a negative association. In fact, it could be argued Diaz’s character is the real “Counselor,” since (Spoiler Alert!) it is her philosophy that survives until the end of the film, and it is she who counsels the audience at the movie’s conclusion. This is all well and good and maybe could have produced an interesting, if dark, film. But in part due to Diaz’ performance, which lacks menace; the showy dialogue that deflates all mystery; and the direction/cinematography, which fails to frame her in a sinister way, this idea never translates.

Ryan: I thought Diaz was catastrophically miscast; she’s a very underrated comedic actress, but this sort of femme fatale role is outside of her wheelhouse. She lacks the gravitas needed to make her character intimidating. The Counselor‘s other four principal actors are all able to deliver McCarthy’s intricate, wordplay-driven dialogue with relative success. Even Fassbender, in spite of his character’s disappointing passivity, makes due with what he’s given. Diaz, in comparison, comes off as wooden and lacking in conviction, as if she’s unsure of how to play her character at any given moment. It’s another misstep for a movie that had everything going for it and failed to deliver on almost any of its promise.

The Counselor is absolutely a flop at this point; it’s been poorly received and has a disappointing box office haul to match. This isn’t exactly uncharted territory for Ridley Scott, who’s had his fair share of failures over the years. It’s a little less old hat for McCarthy, I’d imagine. At one point, I was going to ask you what you think he learned from this experience. Ultimately, that’s a pretty arrogant question. Film, like all other forms of art, is subjective; our trash is someone else’s treasure, and so on. Maybe he’s happy with how the film turned out. Maybe he wasn’t, and won’t write another movie for the rest of his life. Who knows! He’s got a Pulitzer and is the rare American author who might actually win a Nobel Prize for Literature someday; he’ll presumably do whatever he wants.

That said, I hope he takes another crack at screenwriting at some point. He’s such a good writer in general that I have to believe he can write a better screenplay than this. I mean, it certainly wouldn’t take much. If he could produce something more conducive to the medium, I think that’d be something special, OR maybe it’d be best if he wrote books, and let people who work in film on a full-time basis adapt his work. What do you think?

Rebecca: From a critical vantage, a lot of the elements for quality do exist in McCarthy’s script. Like any good idea gone bad, it is lackluster execution and poor editing that make The Counselor so underwhelming. So, as much as we can speculate on where his talents might best convey (television comes to mind for me, though it’s a less prestigious medium), the answer really is that for whatever reason, this stew just didn’t mix. Maybe this proves that in a collaborative process, talent alone does not guarantee success. I have a feeling that McCarthy’s ego will weather this storm just fine.

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