There are miraculous things that can happen with film. Perfectly competent directors, writers, and actors can make something that is outrageously better than the sum of their parts. In business that is called synergy. But what happens when the opposite occurs? I think it looks something like The Counselor, a raw, twisted film in need of an editor and a few rewrites.
But what do I know? Whatever happened on set and in post-production resulted in a film that simply doesn’t know when to move on and is decidedly crude and cruel. Writer Cormac McCarthy, this being his first produced screenplay—we can debate later about No Country For Old Men—seemingly wrote a script that touched on all his hallmarks you might expect. There’s the border town in Texas, drug deals of a high order, and a menacing evil that never surrenders no matter how hard or fast you run.
All of that made for an entertaining venture in the hands of the Coen Brothers, and it all started with the words of McCarthy. Here, director Ridley Scott, a living legend of filmmaking, gives in to McCarthy’s words and the top-of-their-game actors follow right along. The first sequence we begin with The Counselor (Michael Fassbender) and his lover Laura (Penelope Cruz) under the sheets in a sexual encounter. He coos at her where to place his hands, and increasingly asks for specificity that this obviously sexually bashful woman eventually gives in to. That specificity is interesting to note because McCarthy’s own words are incredibly florid. Nearly everyone seems to have an analogy for the situations at hand and they ramble on in long-winded sequences of dialogue.
To see actors like Brad Pitt, a partner in a drug deal with The Counselor and Reiner (Javier Bardem – with the zaniest haircut of his career yet), spew this kind of verbal floridity is music to the ears at first. But eventually, after the hour mark, it becomes absolutely grating. You want to tell them, like The Counselor told Laura in bed, to simply tell you what to do. Where to look. How to feel. Instead they beat around the bush. Everyone has an angle and seems to take time to reveal themselves. Even people that have known each other for years. Did I mention it’s maddening? It is.
The shame is that as I’ve mentioned, on paper this should be a homerun. That’s certainly what the financiers likely thought. There are plenty of sequences that feel completely out of place. And Cameron Diaz’s character, Malkina, who is involved with Reiner has never been more dirty. She’s a wild animal in the film. Sleazy, with pawprint tattoos and a cheetah’s eye on her neck, dark maskara, and hair that seems like she just got out of the pool. She’s sleek and attractive at first, but her audacious attitude and single gold tooth that peeks out every now and then just wears you down to where she has no allure at all.
There’s also a sexist bent to the entire feature. At one point Pitt’s character, Westray, mentions, plainly, that women are the cause for men chasing money. The Counselor, who is chasing Laura’s affection, seems to be the only one with his head on right when it comes to women but even he’s obsessed. “Life is being in bed with you,” The Counselor tells Laura over the phone. “Everything else is just waiting.” Westray, ever the cautious man, also seems to lose his mind as the film twists to its finale. And let’s not get into Reiner’s vivid account of Malkina making love to his car.
I’ve typed over 600 words to this point and mentioned very little of the plot and that’s simply because the plot feels like the thinnest of threads that ties the scenes together. The film is incredibly well shot and there are some great sequences of menace that unfold slowly like waiting for a potato to bake. Damn. I just made an analogy. Well, spare me the grief and chalk it up to the film rubbing off on me in the worst kind of way.
The Counselor is a fruitless film that toils with florid language and analogies galore. The characters are prone to overlong speeches that feel important yet rarely move the film forward. It’s a film searching for something grand but never wanting to get down low enough to get its hands dirty by sticking with it. There are entire sequences that feel simply dropped in, which is a mishmash of McCarthy’s original scipt. Dirty, cruel, and wild, this is a film that you can simply wash away in the shower and never think of again. There I go again.