The Counselor (Ridley Scott, 2013)
Ridley Scott’s new movie, The Counselor, made from the first original screenplay by novelist Cormac McCarthy, tells the story of a criminal defense lawyer – the “Counselor” of the title (Michael Fassbender) – who has decided, for unspecified financial reasons, to enter the world of the Mexican drug trade. Things don’t go well. Naïve and unprepared, Fassbender’s attorney quickly finds himself unable to control the downward spiral of his fortunes, and soon he and his fiancée (Penelope Cruz) are on the run. Along the way, many people die – some in gruesome ways – and villains wreak mayhem. The real crime on display in this movie, however, is the terrible screenplay – complete with forced, overwrought dialogue – and over-the-top performances of many of the leads. When I care more about the fate of two cheetahs (yes, cheetahs!) than that of the central humans (sorry, Fassbender, your tears and snot are for naught), then there’s a major problem. What were they all thinking?
Right from the start, I knew we were in trouble. The movie opens with an overlong credit sequence and an embarrassingly guileless sex scene between Fassbender and Cruz that is shot like soft-core porn yet performed like a Disney film. Ridley Scott, who can be hit (Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise), or miss (Legend, A Good Year, Robin Hood), is nevertheless, at 75 (almost 76), one of the most important directors of the last 40 years. As a visual stylist, he has been incredibly influential. Just watch both Alien and Blade Runner, then compare the design of science fiction films before and after, and you’ll appreciate how much his aesthetic has affected subsequent filmmakers. Cormac McCarthy, as a novelist, has given us such bleak masterpieces as No Country for Old Men and The Road, among others (and an earlier romantic foray, All the Pretty Horses). The two films adapted from his books that I have seen – No Country for Old Men and The Road – both managed to show human greed and suffering in ways both disturbing and engaging. I, for one, cared about the fate of the characters, even while averting my eyes at some of the scenes on screen. But in The Counselor, neither director nor writer have succeeded in creating situations that feel anything but false. Words and actions drip with artifice. Worse, the entire exercise feels like a teenage boy’s fantasy of sex and violence. Avoid at all costs, unless you like watching unmitigated disasters.
I’ll end with a few interesting (to me) observations:
- Did anyone notice that this was the same actress pairing as in Vanilla Sky (note to producers: that fact is not a selling point)? In that film, Cameron Diaz also played crazy to Cruz’s nice. Hmmmm . . .
- Speaking of Diaz, she gives by far the worst performance in the film. Though endowed – beyond her usual physical charms – with a gold tooth and a long cheetah-spot tattoo, she is unable to make her character feel like anything but a construct. Then again, with that dialogue . . .
- Javier Bardem is interesting – he always is – but relishes his overwrought dialogue – as they all do – a bit too much.
- Bruno Ganz is one of the few actors who is able to do a lot with very little, as a diamond merchant in Amsterdam.
- Brad Pitt is funny, up to a point.
- Why give us a scene with Rosie Perez in the penitentiary? Why one more character to later lose track of? Ugh!
You have been warned.