Cormac McCarthy is a writer who has had some major successes in Hollywood. Some of his books that have been turned into major motion pictures are for No Country Old Men, All the Pretty Horses and The Road. He has made some money in Hollywood but gets boatloads of respect from those who view cinema as art. His first original screenplay directed by Ridley Scott is The Counselor.
The story is of a lawyer who works on the fringes of the underworld. The man is never given a proper name, he’s always referred to as “Counselor.” He’s doing a deal with Reiner (Javier Bardem) a club owner and drug smuggler. Reiner’s old lady is Malkina (Cameron Diaz), a hard-nosed former stripper who is only in it for herself. She’s the kind of gal who keeps exotic leopards as pets. The three are involved with dealing drugs with a Mexican cartel.
Westray (Brad Pitt) is a broker for the deal and Laura (Penelope Cruz) is the Counselor’s girlfriend. While Westray knows all the ends and outs of the underworld, believing that the best idea is the ability to disappear without any baggage. He has no attachments to anything but himself. Laura is just an innocent who has no clue on what it going on.
The downward spiral starts when the Counselor helps out his court-appointed client Ruth (Rosie Perez) who is in prison. Her son is arrested for speeding and the Counselor bails him out. It seems that he was part of an intricate drug deal and now the Mexican cartel believes that the Counselor has something to do with the stolen drugs. The single best part of the film is the shootout between the thieves and the cartel members. This episode reveals that everyone around the drugs is marked.
The drug shipment is lifted by someone and now the Mexicans want their drugs and the head of anyone who crossed them. The cartel believes that the Counselor is the brains behind the crosses and double crosses. The film is about how the Counselor gets in over his head… it is also a confusing mess.
Javier Bardem is a much lauded actor who has this manic energy within the confines of The Counselor. He captures the essence of a slightly underworld figure and it is entertaining to watch is character go deeper into the darkness. Cameron Diaz plays equal parts sexy and vicious. Her character arc goes from what seems to be just a girlfriend to the puppet master of the endeavor. It is against type and probably the strongest single performance of her career.
The focus of the work is Michael Fassbender and is its weakest link. For a guy who was so brilliant in 12 Years a Slave, here he seems to be sleepwalking through the role. There is no fire behind his acting, the entire performance is a wounded deer in a den of lions.
The biggest problem lies within the screenplay. The brilliant Cormac McCarthy has crafted a story that is too complicated for its own good. Characters do not talk to each other but rather pontificate. The dialogue never flows but is a scatter shot of words hitting the screen. While McCarthy is a brilliant novelist, it seems that he cannot craft a screenplay.
Ridley Scott has made some of the greatest films of the last few decades, including Blade Runner, Alien and Gladiator. The Counselor is a pale comparison to those three titans of cinema. While this film has some brilliant images within it and some top rated performances, it also mostly fails. On almost every level, it a sore disappointment from a director one expects much more from.