Editor’s Notes: The Counselor is now opened in wide release. For an additional perspective, read Parker’s review (52/100).
What could be better than a film directed by the legendary Ridley Scott, written by celebrated novelist Cormack McCarthy starring Michael Fassbinder, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt? Well, lots of things that are not The Counselor which happens to have all of these amazing elements and still manage to misfire.
Michael Fassbinder plays the titular character, who is never given a name beyond Counselor. He is a high-priced lawyer whose main client is Reiner (Bardem), a drug trafficker and all around criminal. Reiner is in a relationship with Malkina (Diaz) whom he does not trust because she is much smarter than he is. The Counselor is engaged to Laura (Cruz) whom he wants to live a good, well-funded life with.
Every main character gives the illusion of being a deep, three dimensional characters while providing nothing to give that illusion.
The Counselor gets into some unnamed trouble that leads him into a business deal with Reiner and Westray (Pitt). He wants a big score and out, then something goes terribly wrong and the drug shipment is stolen. Then everyone is in trouble up to their eyeballs and no one really knows how to get out of it.
The big problem with The Counselor is the script. I hate to say that about something penned by one of the most lauded crime writers, but it’s true. This is McCarthy’s first screenplay after decades of being a novelist and it shows. The dialogue is very novelistic, and sounds odd coming out of real people’s mouths. It feels like McCarthy never did a test to see if his dialogue made sense out loud. The film is packed with poetic language that I’m sure would be wonderful to read, but it’s nearly nonsensical to listen to. He also takes every opportunity that needs to be clear and obfuscates it, then gives us clarity where obfuscation would be necessary. He keeps many plot details secret, even up until the end credits, leaving the film seem empty and unfinished. I have no doubt this would have made a crackerjack book, but as a screenplay so much is missing.
Then there are his characters. Every main character gives the illusion of being a deep, three dimensional characters while providing nothing to give that illusion. It feels like these characters were developed long before this story and carry that development with them, they just never clue us into what it is. The relationships between the characters is old and well established long before we enter into the picture and have developed a shorthand for communication with each other that is efficient but vague. I have no problem with a film starting in medias res but there needs to be some catch-up time that McCarthy never provides for us. It is profoundly difficult to care about the fates of characters that we are unable to become invested in outside of some quirky personality traits.
The film is also like a novel in that it peels back its story over time, never giving us too much all at once. While this approach works for a film like The English Patient (1996), it fails here because it builds very little tension as the film progresses and it gets to a point where you just don’t care if you find anything else out because everything is just sort of happening.
This may be as much Scott’s fault as McCarthy’s. Scott manages to drain any tension out of the proceedings by keeping the danger and the scenes at arm’s length. McCarthy’s dialogue dances around what can happen and he prevents any character from really helping the Counselor, but Scott diminishes the tension that should build by the end by using filler scenes that add nothing to the film. Any fear for life the Counselor has is not felt by the audience because some side character is put in to say something poetic and superficially meaningful and that makes us wonder why that was there instead of focusing on the escalating danger.
McCarthy’s dialogue dances around what can happen and he prevents any character from really helping the Counselor, but Scott diminishes the tension that should build by the end by using filler scenes that add nothing to the film.
True, these scenes were likely in McCarthy’s script, but it was Scott who decided not to cut them from the final film. I realize it must be difficult to edit an 80 year old legend (McCarthy) but when you are a 76 year old legend (Scott), I imagine you should be able to. Scott obviously knows what is needed to build tension, having created one of the most terrifying films ever made in Alien (1979). He also understands how to have poetic dialogue work within a suspense/action film because he did it in Blade Runner (1982). I don’t know if Scott is getting lazy or if he just had so much reverence for McCarthy, but he really didn’t seem to want to help make this film much good.
By now, the question of why did these high-profile actors sign on to do the film in the first place, considering how uncinematic the script is has crossed your mind. For that answer, I direct you to Borat (2006) director Larry Charles’ directorial debut Masked and Anonymous (2003)co-written by Charles under a pseudonym with a similarly pseudonymed Bob Dylan. Here is a film that should have warded off everyone but attracted somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 high-profile stars (Cruz being one of them). When Jessica Lang was asked why she did the film, she said it was not every day an actor got to speak Bob Dylan’s words, and that’s why she and the others did this turkey of a film (full disclosure on Masked and Anonymous, I love the film but I am a major fan of Bob Dylan’s. I do understand that anyone who is not deeply invested in his music will consider the film atrocious, and when I separate myself from the Dylan fan I can agree with that assessment). I feel the same situation happened here. Sure, Bardem has been in a McCarthy adaptation before, the great No Country for Old Men (2007), but it was McCarthy filtered through Joel and Ethan Coen and therefore distilling the words. These actors wanted to be part of something no other actor had ever really had the opportunity to do before, so they jumped at it.
When it comes down to it, The Counselor is not bad, it is frustrating. I can see something good in there somewhere, but just not in the total final product. It has the texture of something that just hasn’t been in the oven long enough, but is being served anyway. Sure it tastes okay, but you can imagine what it would taste like fully cooked and that is what brings the disappointment. A few more passes or a second, more experienced screenwriter to clean up the screenplay would have added so much to this under-done crime thriller that could have been monumental but instead just falls flat.
[notification type=”star”]55/100 ~ MEDIOCRE. A few more passes or a second, more experienced screenwriter to clean up the screenplay would have added so much to this under-done crime thriller that could have been monumental but instead just falls flat.[/notification]