The Counselor is Too Messy for Its Own Good
In hopes of permanently financing his jet setting lifestyle and indulging his new fiancée Laura (Penelope Cruz), the eponymous Michael Fassbender turns to drug dealing businessman Reiner (Javier Bardem) and his middleman Westray (Brad Pitt) to land the drug deal of all drug deals. Despite his conspirators’ warnings on how far in over his head he is, criminal coincidences with The Counselor’s current case Ruth (Rosie Perez), her Mexican cartel biker son The Green Hornet, and interference from Reiner’s wildcat girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) thrust The Counselor and all those around him into a dangerous, deadly game of cartel retaliation…
I finally settled in for a night with the theatrical cut of The Counselor, but this 2013 modern noir thriller from acclaimed writer Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men) and director Ridley Scott (Alien, Gladiator) is muddled with much too much trite and obviousness vaguely disguised as cerebral commentary. From the slow, awkward sex scene and chop shop drug action interspersed with the opening credits to the plodding pace, undynamic metaphors, and waxing philosophical characters, nothing much happens in The Counseloruntil the last forty minutes. No character back stories and motivations are revealed in the heavy handed script; the threats from the anonymous drug cartel come too late and pull the rug out from under the danger when people are not so unexpectedly killed. A critical kidnapping that should have been the genesis of the piece happens far too late in The Counselor, and the overlong, seemingly backward story doesn’t have much going for it beyond the disconnected and redundant dialogue vignettes. I can forgive the undercooked drug deal particulars – it’s refreshing that any action heist elements are nearly a beside the point MacGuffin. In fact, we don’t need any drug action scenes at all if The Counselor is meant to be a psychological interplay and character piece. Unfortunately, the point of view among the characters is all over the place, and anonymous thefts, deaths, and shootouts from characters named “The Wireman,” “The Young Man,” “The Blonde,” “The Priest,” “The Buyer,” “The Diamond Dealer,” and “The Chauffer” contribute to the unrefined, confusing flab.
In a novel, the reader trusts that all between the layers will be revealed, but the surprisingly mundane style ofThe Counselor doesn’t guarantee anything for the audience. The viewer is given no emotional cause to continue, and even something as simple as a phone conversation accentuates this distance. These talks could be an excuse to play with the filmmaking style, editing, or visual cohesion – change the design for each caller or make each a linear uniformity. Instead, some phone calls are intercut, others are unheard on one end, and some pretentious soliloquies are listened to by those in the next room. Is this a quibble or an uneven media treatment indicative of the un-thought out cinematic design of The Counselor? Why is this stunning cast literally phoning in these stilted skits? This ensemble could sit in an empty room and read the dictionary for a wild time, yet their collective wow goes unrealized. Instead of hearing “Counselor” every few minutes, Fassbender’s lawyer should have no title. Make his thinking he’s the shit an intriguing subtly ala Layer Cake – just because he doesn’t know he’s crossed the line doesn’t mean the audience is so unaware. For all this wordiness, The Counselor doesn’t say very much. Religion versus sex? The drug business is a religion? Love is a beheading? These potential examinations, supposed shock values, and crime dangers don’t register with the audience because we aren’t given all the pieces until after the fact, if at all. Leaving things for the viewer to figure out is one thing, but plot holes and having your story take place at the wrong point in time are not highbrow. I didn’t expect The Counselor to be a standard, violent, action caper. I expected high drama and emotional depth but spent more time pausing, analyzing who was who, and wondering why I was wasting my time, for the answer to who was going to come out on top was so pathetically obvious compared to any emotional journey The Counselor or the audience is supposed to have.
Speaking of that lawyer who’s called by his courtroom courtesy minute to minute, Michael Fassbender’s incompetent Counselor is apparent from the moment he doesn’t know which fancy diamond is which. If he were swindled on the gem, would he have even known? This over his head symbolism is given in the first fifteen minutes of a film that spends the rest of its run time repeatedly reiterating how in over his head The Counselor is. His head is under the covers, his head is between Laura’s legs, he presses a client about hats; this dude harbors a rainy cloud over his parade and everyone sees it but him. We get it. Why not show how this pedestrian lawyer came to love the high life? Let’s see him cross that unlawful line and greedy point instead of telling us nothing we don’t already know. We see his legalese job but once so the viewer can’t appreciate any shady underbelly contrast or allure. How does he know these crooks? Why are these drug dealers warning him so kindly if they pressed him to get so involved? The Counselor is a risky, unlikeable, untrustworthy protagonist who balks at his court appointed client. He wants to prove his power over his case, but in that swagger he ignores obvious clues to his undoing – like a speeding motorcyclist who was caught carrying $12,000. We don’t need to know his name. However, without any details beyond what a piss poor, unable to read people lawyer he is, The Counselor’s supposedly important relationship with Laura becomes unbelievable, insincere, and suspect. He didn’t mind putting her at risk when he was actively doing something nefarious, yet The Counselor grows scared once the cartel is coming after him because of Shakespearean coincidence? The criminal turns in which The Counselor finds himself will not surprise today’s audiences, and combined with the cliché outcome for this couple, there isn’t much else to deduce beyond the irony of him not knowing he’s in the proverbial horror movie patheticness.
The Counselor is the first real misstep from the Oscar nominated Fassbender (Shame, Twelve Years A Slave, X-Men: Days of Future Past). With so shoddy a script, it’s as if The Counselor is supposed to get by on Fassbender’s seemingly charming portrayal of an overly asinine version of himself. He should be able to carry a gritty, despairing crime thriller on his own, but for a talented actor who usually slips so seamlessly into his character’s skin, Fassbender looks strangely uncomfortable and out of his element here – just like his character. His voice is slightly different, an in and out British or American accent changed from scene to scene regardless of jet setting location or his Bar association. We hardly spend enough time with Fassbender to enjoy the tailored Armani suits, strut, and cropped hair. He looks cool, but he’s trying too hard to be cool and over compensates with his chiseled ponder as The Counselor listens or ignores as needed. Is the point ofThe Counselor this hollow or weak register? Why would the viewer care if this shallow fool gets his comeuppance with no reflection on what has happened? The Sopranos would have dealt with this eponymous screw up by proxy a lot sooner! Will this whole episode break The Counselor, force him to live with what has happened or have him fall on his Roman sword? Did he really expect to get away with this escapade? The audience knows this is all his fault, but again, the story before and after the movie would have been more compelling to see. Fassbender gives his stunning best efforts in his final few scenes, but it’s simply too little too late to save The Counselor.
Ultimately, the takes too long obvious, pedestaled and vilified women, disconnected dialogue, apathetic players, and premature story of The Counselor just tries too darn hard. One can read this kind of slow conversation and page turning analysis, but the distant cartel dangerous never registers onscreen thanks to the witnessing of superior crime pictures and little new wisdoms in the pretentious here. Although fans of the cast will enjoying their preferred guys and gals in their respective scene chewing snippets, The Counselornever stop hitting the audience over the head with wordy we already know. Indeed, movie lovers can find better heist pictures, crime dramas, or action films that give the audience what it wants, serves the plot, and their characters’ storytelling needs without so much… ostentatious absurdity.
Review by Kristin | MFO | I Think, Therefore I Review