The Counselor marks the first time Cormac McCarthy has written an original screenplay. The long time author is no stranger to seeing his words put on screen with previous works like No Country For Old Men adapted by the Coen Brothers and The Road by John Hillcoat. Ridley Scott has never been one to elevate a good to OK script to something great, and while The Counselor is a McCarthy tale through and through it comes off on screen as hollow and lacking. Despite an amazing cast of actors and great performances all around.
Ever the stylists, Riddle Scott flexes mightily in The Counselor. With interesting framing and set direction that makes the whole thing feel more like a Mann esque crime thriller play than a film. The world is colored in slightly muted 80’s pastel colors that were home to his late brother Tony. On to this vibrant palate he mixes in the normal amount of dead pan gore and violence that comes with the territory of the genre. The two seem opposite one another but come together rather nicely. Reiner(Javier Bardem) on the run with his two pet cheetahs and his Brian Grazer hair. Brushing up against the grimy thugs of whatever drug cartel he manages to piss off. It’s one of the more action heavy sequences of the film and one of the few times Scott does some really filmic stuff. The rest of this films style comes in the set and color and actors who just chew every last inch of it, while Scott places a camera behind some bit of glass or through a window.
This film is a simple morality play of one lawyers attempt to live large after making friends with various shady and criminal activities. How couldn’t you be drawn into this type of life? The life of his friend, international drug dealer, Reiner. He’s got an amazing post modernist house with a big pool, a garage filled with expensive sport cars, beautiful women everywhere, and two pet cheetah. All of that without a sign of violence or blow back on him or his people.
Not even Westray(Brad Pitt) and his graphic explanations of what fate is waiting for all of them if their venture fails. “These are the people who will cut out your liver and feed it to your dog” he warns. Horrific violence to these people isn’t born from some sick need for it. It is simply part of doing business and keeping up appearances.
Like I said, simple structure. No Country for Old Men was about the choices we make and the unforeseen consequences they have. The Counselor is all about the consequence of action. The drug shipment the titular counselor has bought into goes missing and a series of coincidences make the cartel put the blame squarely on him. Not that it saves anyone else from the noose.
The extended third act in which these consequences come to the front is filled with powerful imagery and a large and sort of effecting performance by the lead Michael Fassbender. As traumatic as these moments are they could have been made more evocative if more time had been spent setting them up. The Counselor feels like it was written as a play before McCarthy changed it into a screenplay. All the action happens off screen, which Scott does cut away to from time to time in a series of largely dialog free sequences. The film is centered around big conversation after conversation all pretending to react to the off screen happenings but never with a full understandin. .
It is an interesting way to structure a film and one that makes The Counselor incredibly expedient. The shipment and other elements that move the plot forward are cut to as moments of breath and never fully explains how everything came to be. The 5 W’s of the shipment going missing isn’t important, it only matters that it happened. It also makes the continuity and reasoning why the shadowy “they” cartel reacts in such violent fashion. There is one scene in which the counselor is meeting with his client, Ruth, I’m left wanting a bit more of that.
All that doesn’t matter as it’s just window dressing for Cormac McCarthy to write lots of capital “D” dialog. The words that come from the actors mouths are big and theatrical. Every conversation seems to be about the nature of morality and how they value things in comparison to someone else. All of which is dispersed among a cast of characters that are ill to a moral at best, who live opulent lifestyle and clearly value the next shiny new thing. This isn't saying the dialog is bad, it isn’t. I’d very much like to get a copy of the script to read and hear it again. But all this waxing philosophical just starts to wear the audience down after a while. You can’t have a big speech every scene and that’s what The Counselor is.
The main reason why this dialog becomes so interesting is because of the cast saying all the big words. All around the main cast, and variety of recognizable supporting faces, give excellent to acceptable performances. Michael Fassbender continues to be one of the best working actors with a variety of projects. His melodramatic performance in the last 20 minutes was enough to get some faint emotional reaction out of me even if there was barely any setup for such an emotional payoff. Javier Bardem wears crazy sunglasses and has Brian Grazer inspired hair and like everyone else chews the scenery to the max. Giving Reiner the typical Bardem mixture of charm and creepiness. Penelope Cruz gets the short end of the stick from a character perspective and isn’t tasked to do much but play the innocent idol for the Fassbender's Counselor. The real stand out is Cameron Diaz as Malkina. Yes, this is that movie where she does a thing with the car. A scene that is equal parts humours, dumbfounding, and raw sexuality. But it’s such a hard edge that Diaz puts on that while The Counselor is likely to not be on many award short lists her performance may get some attention.
When the credits rolled for No Country for Old Men, my other turned to me and let out a deflating “wow”. The Counselor elicited a similar reaction but without feeling like it was really earned. It is certainly an interesting film to see. Ridley Scotts color palette and McCarthy’s dialog carry the weaker aspects of the film, turning it into an interesting failure or curiosity. Most Ridley Scott films are better once they receive a directors cut and The COunselor may be better on home video. AS it is it’s an exercise in style over substance that tries to make the style the substance.