Movie Review: The Counselor
By Matthew Huntley
October 30, 2013
There is certain level of refined trashiness to Ridley Scott’s The Counselor that at least makes it watchable. That’s not to say it makes it relevant, or even entertaining, but the characters and plot are twisted and unique enough that we feel moderately compelled to find out what happens to them, even we don’t care all that much. Movies like this are perhaps best reserved for the home instead of the theater, not only because they’re not distinctively cinematic, but because their stories are willing to go off in any direction and we feel like we can pick them up at any time, kind of like a soap opera.
And, just like a soap opera, The Counselor is easy to watch but difficult to invest in or take seriously. The story has the capability to go in any direction, but for it to have really worked, we would’ve had to want to follow it, and alas, that’s not the case.
The movie was written by the novelist Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men, The Road), and indeed the screenplay contains long-winded and unnatural-sounding dialogue that would have been better suited for a novel. In screenplay form, the characters’ loquacious passages, harangues and theories about human behavior have us rolling our eyes instead of actually heeding them.
Like many of McCarthy’s works, The Counselor centers on moral depravity and crime. This time it involves a young, ambitious and in-love lawyer known only as The Counselor (Michael Fassbender). He’s smart, fit and well-off, but he’s been sniffing out the idea of delving into the drug trafficking industry because of who he knows. Despite being advised of the risks involved, including a friendly warning from smooth-talking, cowboy hat-wearing middleman (Brad Pitt) to a very powerful Mexican drug cartel, the Counselor believes he can handle it. His decision stems chiefly from wanting to marry and provide for his girlfriend, Laura (Penelope Cruz), whom he’s so afraid of either losing or boring, he figures he has to keep the riches coming just to hold onto her. (No wonder he goes to such great lengths for her engagement ring.)
The latter notion is instilled in him by his friend and business partner, Reiner (Javier Bardem). They’re opening a nightclub together near the Mexican border, a legitimate venture they hope will serve as a front for their illegitimate schemes on the side. As an established drug trafficker himself, Reiner has bitten off more than he can chew, spending lavishly and trying to maintain his own relationship with the devilish and cunning Malkina (Cameron Diaz), who, with an unforgettable physical act on top of a luxury car, takes the power of seduction and sexual weirdness to new heights. Malkina is wicked yet resourceful, the kind of woman who gets a thrill out of watching her pet cheetahs hunt rabbits simply for the purity of the act.
The other key character in the film is Ruth (Rosie Perez), a convict whom the Counselor was appointed to represent through no fault of his own. Her ties to him and a drug runner known only as The Green Hornet turn out to have major ramifications.
More of the plot, I cannot say, and not just because it’d be wrong to reveal what happens, but because I’m not sure I’d have all my facts straight. The characters in The Counselor are so ostentatious they overshadow the plot and make it difficult to know exactly what’s going on. Or maybe it was that I just didn’t care all that much. In any case, The Counselor is the type of movie that warrants additional viewings, because once we have a clear idea of who’s connected to who, and who’s behind what, it takes on new meaning.
The problem is that meaning never really adds up to much and everything about the movie feels cold and distant, which may be the point given the subject matter, but we should still feel connected to it, which is where it fails. Sure, we’re curious about what these people do and why, but it’d be a stretch to say we actually care about them. To be fair, there were points when I thought the movie would win me over, especially during the scenes between Fassbender and Cruz, who, like the other actors in the film, are convincing and make us believe they are who they are, despite their dialogue, and in the Counselor and Laura’s case, we believe they’re deeply in love. Admittedly, their relationship tugs at our heartstrings. I also appreciated Scott’s signature detail and patience, especially in a scene when a man called The Wireman (Sam Spruell) sets up a rig to “catch” The Green Hornet.
But the movie, as whole, never comes together as anything consequential or credulous. I was always interested in what it had to offer and where it was going, but that’s not the same as caring about it. Perhaps as a novel, I’d have been more willing to invest in the characters and plot since literature, as a medium, makes both aspects easier to believe. Film is more difficult, though, which is something The Counselor proves all too well.