REVIEW: The Counselor (2013)

Car sex and backstabbing combine in Ridley Scott’s collaboration with Cormac McCarthy. 

A number of Cormac McCarthy’s novels have been adapted as motion pictures in the past decade or so, most notably by the Coen Brothers for 2007’s Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men. But 2013’s The Counselor finds McCarthy as a screenwriter, producing his first original work written directly for the big screen. Suffice it to say, the resulting film is full of the author’s idiosyncrasies; The Counselor is a dark story inhabited by unpleasant, duplicitous characters. It was appropriate material for director Ridley Scott to sink his teeth into, giving vivid life to the unsettling situations dreamed up by McCarthy. It’s a fairly solid effort with moments of greatness, but it’s somewhat dead around the eyes, in need of a spark to generate a truly riveting viewing experience.

A lawyer who’s fallen on hard financial times, the Counselor (Michael Fassbender) seeks to join a drug deal alongside Reiner (Javier Bardem) and Westray (Brad Pitt). However, the deal goes south when the shipment is hijacked by unknown armed enforcers, and suspicion falls on the Counselor. Concerned for both himself and his loving fiancée Laura (Penelope Cruz), the Counselor becomes overwhelmed with panic, hoping to negotiate a deal with the men who are trying to kill him.

The story of The Counselor is dense and intricate, eventually devolving into a convoluted mess of half-explanations, vague motives and double-crosses. It’s simply hard to discern who’s doing what – the Counselor’s actual role in the drug deal remains vague, for instance. Consequently, it feels as if fragments of the narrative are missing (especially the beginning of the story), and it doesn’t help that some character actions stick out as odd. For example, the Counselor uses a stranger’s phone to call his fiancée in fear of his mobile being traced. But later, he uses a known associate’s phone to set up a meeting with Laura, which seems careless since he knows that people are watching him and might be listening to the call. Nevertheless, McCarthy’s screenplay benefits from some real positives, most notably in the borderline poetic dialogue. The conversations between characters sizzle with intelligence, and there’s more sophistication on hand here than in usual blockbusters. There are a number of scenes which stand out, especially a strange vignette in which Reiner casually describes an incident involving Malkina (Cameron Diaz) literally having sex with his car.

Scott brings to the project his usual proclivity for solid visuals and deliberate pacing. This is a handsome picture which excels in terms of composition and all-round production values, and Scott doesn’t baulk from staging viciously violent sequences from time to time. Indeed, there is gunplay and decapitations, accentuating the ruthlessness of this story. Furthermore, the acting is solid from top to bottom, amplifying the production’s sense of professionalism. Fassbender plays it straight, making for a stable lead as the titular Counselor. There are times when Fassbender truly soars, too, including an unforgettable scene towards the film’s end when he breaks down in a hugely realistic fashion. He shares terrific chemistry with Cruz, too, whose believability is a huge asset. More colourful is Bardem, with his spiky hair and spray tan, while Pitt seems to be enjoying himself as a cowboy type. Less successful is Diaz, who simply fails to make much of an impact. Angelina Jolie was initially cast in Diaz’s role, which would’ve been more on target. The rest of the actors more or less receive single-scene cameos, including Rosie Perez, Bruno Ganz, John Leguizamo and Dean Norris.

Unfortunately, The Counselor seems stuck in first gear for most of its runtime, packing very little in the way of thrills or suspense. It looks visually interesting as it unfolds on the screen, but it only occasionally come to life. And when the climax approaches and deaths mount, the movie still stays pretty sedate, becoming more elusive to emotional grasp. Ironically, the story would’ve probably been better served in novel form, as it’s underwhelming as a motion picture, with its clinical, aloof nature making it difficult to become genuinely invested in. Perhaps McCarthy always needs someone else to adapt his works for the screen. The movie is dedicated to Ridley’s sibling director Tony, who committed suicide in the middle of shooting.

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